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    The former US treasury secretary points out to the Chancellor that while the US economy exceeded its pre-recession peak years ago, the UK is still catching up.

    At the end of a week in which the Tories have become ever more boastful of their economic record, Keynesian lion Larry Summers delivered some hard truths to George Osborne at Davos this morning.

    Summers, who served as treasury secretary to Bill Clinton and as director of Barack Obama's National Economic Council, rightly noted that, more than five years on from the crash, UK GDP remains below its pre-recession peak. He said (from 1:10 onwards): 

    If you compare the United States and Britain, it was a couple of years ago that we exceeded our previous peak GDP, that’s something that is still being sought in Britain.

    Indeed, while US GDP is now 5.6 per cent above its pre-crisis level (thanks in part to greater fiscal stimulus), UK GDP is 2 per cent smaller than in 2008. 

    To this, Osborne responded by pointing out that the recession was deeper in the UK than in the US. He said: "We did have a much deeper fall in GDP and, for a banking sector that is the same size as the US’s, in an economy a fifth or sixth of the size, the impact of the financial crisis was even greater in the United Kingdom than it was in the States. The great recession in the UK had an even greater effect and we were one of the worst affected of any of the major western economies.

    But as Summers (who is working with Ed Balls, his former Harvard pupil, on a transatlantic commission on "inclusive prosperity") smartly retorted:

    The deeper the valley you are in, the more rapidly you are able to grow. 

    It's also worth buying this week's NS to read Felix Martin on this subject. Here's an extract: 

    When I first started out on the bond markets, an older and wiser colleague took it upon himself to warn me of the pitfalls of dealing with unscrupulous brokers. “Watch out for salesmen selling recovery stories,” he advised. “Never forget the definition of a bond that was down 50 per cent and then recovered 50 per cent. It’s a bond that has lost 25 per cent.” I can’t help thinking of this homely piece of wisdom every time I read another story about the UK’s loudly hailed recent recovery.

    It is true that the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by nearly 2 per cent in the four quarters to September 2013, compared to barely more than 1 per cent over the whole two years before that.

    The trouble is that this still left the economy nearly 2 per cent smaller than it was at the end of 2007 – more than six years ago. As my former colleague pointed out: when there’s been a precipitous crash, you need to pay attention to levels of growth as well as growth rates if you want to avoid bamboozlement by sales pitches.

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    Jeremy Herrin's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels for the stage is a marvel, if a little overstuffed, with so much plot and counterplot there is little room left for anything else.

    Wolf Hall; Bring Up the Bodies; The Duchess of Malfi
    Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1

    Adapting a novel, John le Carré once said, is like making a cow into an Oxo cube. The playwright Mike Poulton compares it to turning a Rolls-Royce into a light aircraft. Whichever you go for, the nagging worry as you sit down to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new versions of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is that they will fail to get off the ground – or simply taste of nothing.

    It is no small triumph that neither is true of these plays. Poulton’s adaptations – a shade over six hours of theatre, in two instalments – are beautifully engineered and often enthralling as they play out the dizzying chess game of high-stakes Tudor politics. Abandoning Mantel’s backstories and elaborate time shifts, Wolf Hall takes us straight to Henry VIII’s problem: 20 years of marriage to Katherine of Aragon have not produced a male heir. Nathaniel Parker’s king, crashing around the court like a disgruntled toddler, has his gaze on Lydia Leonard’s alluring yet dangerous Lady Anne. The jumped-up Boleyns are imagining the trinkets and earldoms that will come their way. Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) is doing his best but is bustling towards his demise. “The one thing Henry can’t tolerate,” more than one character reflects, “is failure.”

    The man tasked with finding success is Cromwell (Ben Miles), the Putney-born son of a blacksmith whose uncanny ability to get things done has lifted him from obscurity to the highest rungs of power. If Cromwell’s real-life achievements (fluency in multiple languages, service as a soldier across Europe and in the Florentine banks) seem awesome, Miles’s in the theatre are pretty impressive, too. Hardly ever offstage, he circles the court like a shark in dark satin, observing and waiting, laying out traps for his enemies and treats for his friends.

    Plausible both as blokeish charmer and cold-blooded enforcer, he has a habit of watching the faces of his victims as he outmanoeuvres them – not sadistically, you feel, but simply to figure out how to do it more efficiently next time. It is like watching a Tudor supercomputer at work.

    Royal rage: Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

    Jeremy Herrin’s production is equally impressive and just as fast on its feet, particularly as the wheels begin turning on Anne’s fall from grace. His actors pedeconference furiously, West Wing-style, keeping the action flowing across the almost-bare stage of the Swan. In Christopher Oram’s design, Henry’s court is rendered with mercifully little hey-nonny-nonny: a wooden stool stands in for the seat of a river barge; a cart enters in Wolf Hall loaded with legal texts confirming Henry as defender of the faith and reappears in Bring Up the Bodies as a tumbril bearing the corpses of Anne’s supposed lovers. Nothing seems extraneous. Everything has its place.

    So what’s wrong? Perhaps that everything has its place. Whereas the joy of the books is the panoptic curiosity of their vision – their eye for shimmering detail – Poulton’s adaptations are so full of plot and counterplot that there’s barely room for anything else. Only in fleeting moments (the hunting scene that opens Bring Up the Bodies; Henry’s ritualistic signing of death warrants) do the plays find visual poetry to match the piercing clarity of Mantel’s prose. It’s possible to watch and be riveted – as I was – without being in the least bit moved. It’s hard to imagine an adaptation being better done but some cows can’t be boiled down.

    Mantel’s intriguing politician seems almost wholesome when set alongside the festering Italian court of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, in which one false move is liable to get you a dagger in the ribs, or a poisoned prayer book applied to the lips. It’s the opening production at Shakespeare’s Globe’s new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modelled on the kind of space Shakespeare and his peers began to use in the first decade of the 17th century. It is a jewel of a thing: tiny (just 340 seats), exquisitely carpentered from pale English oak and Scots pine and illuminated largely by glistening, golden candlelight.

    Full of plot twists and featuring a blood-spattered finale that would shame Quentin Tarantino, Webster’s tragedy can seem schlocky and overcooked. The Old Vic’s 2012 production showed Eve Best’s duchess being strangled with horrific realism, leaving her writhing onstage for the best part of a minute; other directors have emphasised Malfi’s nastiness or the kinky, psychosexual games that flicker across its surface. Little wonder Victorian moralists loathed it; even less surprising that it is one of our own era’s most-revived Jacobean nasties.

    Here, however, beneath the guttering candles and to the hushed accompaniment of lutes and viols, the play has a haunting grandeur – it is less torture porn than a morality drama in which good and evil do battle, quite literally, in the shadows. Dominic Dromgoole’s Renaissance-style production is occasionally unwieldy (it could shed 15 minutes and at least one burst of William Byrd) but it has the great benefit of clarity, narrating with wit and energy the duchess’s attempts to control her fate and her war of attrition with her brothers, who hound her to the grave for crossing them.

    Gemma Arterton brings an appealing freshness to the role, quick with mocking laughter, then patient and dignified as her suffering mounts. Yet the evening belongs to her siblings, the double act of David Dawson’s Ferdinand and James Garnon’s cardinal. Garnon glides around in his scarlet robes with a carnivorous leer; Dawson has the ferret-like appearance of a young Mandelson, eyes seething with suspicion even before his sanity begins to wobble.

    It is the look of the production that lodges in the mind. Candelabras hung above the stage are levered up and down to modify the overall light levels and you quickly adjust to the world of difference that a single candle can make. Characters brush past each other in the gloom, whispering confidences or preparing to kill each other; russet and silver fabrics glow and sparkle for a moment and just as quickly fade.

    When a troupe of madmen is brought out of the darkness of a lunatic asylum to dance for the duchess, the moment has a strange, sad beauty. It manages something that the RSC never quite gets: it catches the breath.

    (Top) Dying of the light: Ferdinand (Dawson) and the duchess (Arterton) in The Duchess of Malfi. Photograph: Mark Douet.

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    If Martha Lane Fox is right, and the UK needs to fill one million technology jobs by 2020, then we're going to have to change the perception of technology careers among teenage girls.

    “I’d rather be a binman” she says - her face shows that she’s telling the truth. Pausing for dramatic emphasis she explains that she really would prefer to be arm-deep in household refuse than spend her life in an IT department. The teenage girls around her nod affirmatively.

    “Technologists don’t wash,” quips one.

    “And they wear awful clothes,” adds another.

    “It’s not a career for women,” says the first with definitive finality.

    When the garbage dump holds greater allure for our youngsters than Silicon Roundabout, we’ve got problems.

    The most pressing problem of all is technology skills shortage. Martha Lane Fox states the need to fill one million technology jobs by 2020, the year when this thirteen-year-old girl is due to enter the workforce.

    These teenagers are avid consumers of technology. They are almost all devoted to the cult of Apple with a fundamentalism that would shame the average San Franciscan. There’s nothing remotely luddite about them - they possess the same urges to own gadgets as their male classmates and yet they cannot see themselves involved in the creation of technology.

    It’s as if an entire generation of girls has internalized the “airhead” culture from 1990s teen comedies, which is entirely possible given that most of these girls are heavy users of Netflix. The data shows that girls use their devices more intensely than their male classmates: 45 per cent of girls say they use a smartphone every day, compared with 35 per cent of boys. Young girls are also now bigger users of social networks: 53 per cent of all mobile social gamers are now female.

    The myth that girls are “not interested in technology” is simply untrue. However, the sad reality is that they see themselves as spectators rather than participants.

    It’s easy (and unfair) to put the blame on schools - after all until very recently the ICT curriculum was laughably out of date. It emphasized topics such as the need to format floppy disks, and how to make basic spreadsheets. Universally derided, the subject had become a joke: one frustrated teacher quipped that the initials stood for “I Can Type”.

    But the subject has had a reboot. The old ICT is the new Computer Science. Where the former taught secretarial skills, its replacement speaks of eternal truths of computing. But despite this revitalized and newly relevant course, are girls getting into it? Unfortunately not - if anything the higher standards and focus on genuine engineering skills has the potential to alienate even greater numbers of girls.

    Last year only 245 girls took A-level computing compared with 5,153 who took Spanish. Over the last 17 years there has been an 83 per cent drop in the number of girls studying A-Level computing in England. It’s as if the internet has ushered-in a new era of technical illiteracy.

    It’s clear that the reasons girls choose not to pursue courses and careers in technology has nothing to do with the subject’s content, and much more to do with their image of someone who works in technology being a pizza-guzzling nerd who can't get a girlfriend. The only way to prevent Britain's technology workforce from becoming a priesthood is to address these attitudes.

    We spent 2 years in inner city schools understanding why girls would not want to choose careers in technology. Most girls will claim that the subject is not “creative” - by this they usually mean that they imagine that all technologists spend their days holled-up in dungeon like offices staring blankly into cyberspace before heading home for a League of Legends all-nighter.

    The quickest way to overcome these attitudes is to actually challenge them directly. Well-functioning tech teams are often collaborative - dare I say even “chatty”. They are places where solutions arise by discussion and engagement with problems.

    The way to dissuade girls of incorrect notions is by directly exposing them to technology teams. Little Miss Geek is tackling this problem head on - we run after-school tech clubs in inner city schools which focus on inspirational ways that girls can change the world through technology. The curriculum is fun and uses exciting technologies such as Sphero, Raspberry Pis and Kano kits. We have increased the number of girls taking GCSE Computing by 52 per cent in one of our inner city London schools.

    Our programme ended with a trip to one of our sponsors: Bank of America where the girls were able to participate in technical planning and experience a day on the floor of an actual technology department. The girls were surprised it looked nothing like the basement office from Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd.

    This gender gap is a problem that begins with teenage girls - it’s also one that we can fix with the help of those same teenagers.

    We’ve failed to communicate the values of technology. We’ve allowed the image of people who work in technology to be defined by tabloids and TV-shows. We must show our girls that technologists are neither boffins nor outcasts just as real doctors and lawyers are not as glamorous as the ones presented on TV.

    We must convince our girls that technology is a creative and vibrant field – a world of ideas which can truly change the world. The way to do that is to directly confront them with the act of transformation and show them what’s possible.

    @belindaparmar is the founder of @ladygeek and the CEO of the social enterprise Little Miss Geek

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    Turkeys won't vote for Christmas and Google won’t vote to pay its taxes either.

    This week saw energy giant SSE announce a 8.8 per cent hike in profits, to £1.5bn. For its millions of customers who faced a price increase of 8.2 per cent just two months ago, what better demonstration could there be of the broken nature of our energy market? What better example of untrammelled corporate rent-seeking than SSE’s well paid executives and shareholders receiving bumper payouts, while millions of customers struggle to pay bills that only ever go up, not down?

    This show of corporate power is currently on display on a bigger scale in Davos, and surely energy customers in Britain won’t fail to spot the irony of the Masters of the Universe, gathered on their Swiss mountaintop, deciding that income inequality is the greatest threat we face today. How apt that these standard bearers for the wealthiest 1 per cent should choose their annual convention for Corporate Boosterism to wake up to the iniquity of our gross, global inequity. And fitting, too, that it should be at Davos, where Thomas Mann imagined the products of an earlier, gilded age of capital and reflected on the sickness of their modernity, and the conflict that hung over it.

    But hold the hollow laughter for a moment, because the sight of plutocrats wringing their hands ought to be a wake up to politics and the people we represent. They are right to worry that the accelerating accumulation of wealth and power in ever fewer hands is fuelling instability between nations and hardening divisions within them. When those divides can be captured as graphically as Oxfam did this week with the news that the richest 85 people now control more cash and assets than fully half the population of the globe, they are right to be profoundly concerned. A risk index of 85:3.5 billion doesn’t look good on the balance sheet, you see. But the trouble is that the answers to this problem can’t be found on any balance sheet, or with the accountant’s slide-rule. No matter how hard they look, the answer won’t be found by these cosmopolitan capitalists on their magic mountaintop. No, the answer lies with the people looking up from the global valley floor below, and in a politics that speaks for them once more.

    Now, perhaps I'm writing them off too soon. Perhaps the modestly-titled World Economic Forum will conclude this weekend with a communique calling for redistribution of wealth from rich to poor? Perhaps they'll propose tax transparency, country by country profit reporting and statutory tax co-ordination between sovereign nation states? Perhaps they'll champion the role of state investment and public research in underpinning private enterprise? Perhaps they'll back a Living Wage, a Tobin tax, trade union membership or call for the return of Glass-Steagall legislation at home and capital controls abroad? Perhaps they'll suggest some means to reverse the relentless acquisition of more by those that have the most? Perhaps. But I doubt it.   

    They should, of course, because they are right to be worried that the yawning gulf in wealth and opportunity, across generations, and between class and caste, will jeopardise not just the life chances for billions of our global citizens, but, eventually, their own business model, too. However, they cannot articulate the right prescription because the solutions required are anathema to their merchant code. They limit the flexibility to hire and fire as business needs demand. They constrain the capacity to place shareholder gains and quarterly returns above all else. They raise other values of loyalty and local pride, solidarity and long-term commitment, alongside the purity of the profit-motive, and so dilute its power. They ask rootless and ruthless global markets to accept that there exist social and public goods that should never be commoditised, and local rules that should not be subverted. They ask money to acknowledge that there are spheres of life where it should hold no sway. 

    Don't hold your breath. Turkeys won't vote for Christmas and Google won’t vote to pay its taxes either. The only answer is a politics which takes on vested interest and bends it to the people’s will. A politics that takes on the energy companies that are ripping us off, that challenges the banks to serve industry and not themselves, and one that chooses to prioritise the hard-working majority, not protect a privileged minority.

    That’s not a politics or a morality that you are likely to find in the rarefied air of Davos's smoke-free seminar rooms or in Tory Party HQ. But it is the politics that we need here in Britain and that we need to project from our small island to the globalised world beyond. It’s a One Nation Labour politics. And Ed Miliband will deliver it when he wins power for the people in 2015.

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    Labour can be right about the economics of the cost of living crisis and still lose the argument in 2015.

    There has been a lot of argument today about whether the cost of living crisis is easing, as the Tories has claimed. Or not, as Labour insists. George has a robust rebuttal of the Treasury version of events here.

    At one level, it is obviously good for Labour that the government has conceded the underlying point that individual living standards matter in terms of how people judge the economy as much as headline GDP growth. And it is a safe bet that most voters neither pay much attention to, nor trust statistics indicating that things are going in the right direction. (Especially when it doesn't feel that way.) That is just another one to file under mistrust of everything that passes a politician’s lips.

    Still, not everyone in Labour is as confident about the cost of living argument as the bullish official language suggests. Beneath the surface there is concern that George Osborne’s story of a national rescue mission that is, albeit belatedly, delivering results will resonate. What the Tories like to point out in private is that they don’t necessarily need everyone to think the economy is fixed by 2015, nor even that their own personal circumstances are so much better than in 2010 (for many, they won’t be). What the government needs is for voters to think things are going in the right direction and that it would be a risky gamble to switch to Labour.

    In other words, the Conservatives think they just need to sow doubt in people’s minds about the plausibility of Labour’s offer – which they think can be done easily enough when some business figures are noisily anxious – for the electorate’s instinctive caution to kick in. And there are those in Labour who worry that this fear-mongering can pin the opposition back. Their comfort is that, even if the Tories manage to stoke up quite a lot of doubt about Ed Miliband’s prospectus, it doesn’t win great swathes of new votes for David Cameron.

    In other words, the Prime Minister still doesn’t have positive reasons to hand for why Britain should have a Tory government after 2015, which means he simply won’t bag the seats he needs to do better than he did in 2010. Throw in a few stubborn Ukip voters and a bunch of Lib Dem switchers and Labour are still the biggest party in a hung parliament. It is true that the maths in that respect are in Miliband’s favour. But it’s not an inspiring pitch and although most of the Labour people I speak to recognise that they have this huge structural advantage, many of them also privately concede that that’s pretty much all they seem to feel good about right now.

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    Economist Jim O'Neil has grouped Mexico, India, Nigeria and Turkey together as the economies most likely to explode over the next decade. But there are lessons to be learned from the BRICs - a rising tide does not lift all boats.

    Where in the world can you still expect to get minted? The clue is in the question. Jim O’Neill, the economist of "BRIC" fame recently invented a new acronym, MINT, to showcase the next four economic frontiers.

    O’Neill’s prophetic acronym was coined in 2001 to predict the economic emergence of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) and resulted in a rush of new-found wealth in all four economies. Over the past decade we’ve seen the number of millionaires swelling in these countries. Indian millionaires have developed a fad for yachts, Russians for Knightsbridge, Chinese for fine wine and apparently, the latest thing to have in Brazil, is a helicopter.

    Just as these BRIC economies come off the crest of the wave and start lowering their growth predictions, O’Neill has come up with a new acronym for the decade: MINT, meaning Mexico, India, Nigeria and Turkey. 

    So, will the MINTs follow in the wake of the BRICs and become the next great wealth frontier? Research conducted by wealth consultancy WealthInsight, together with Spear's magazine, which compares the MINTs, BRICs and G8, suggests so. Led by Indonesia, which expects to see a 22 percent increase in the number of resident millionaires in 2014, the MINTs are set to overtake the BRICs over the year ahead. In doing so, however, they will leave the old G8 countries far behind. The countries in the G8 are struggling in the single digits and the growth of millionaires in the US is under half that of Indonesia.

    Green refers to MINT countries, red to BRICs and white to the G8.

    These are startling figures and here’s why: data on millionaire populations is akin to estimates on the size of the middle class. Though the term is rooted in English traditionalism, the idea of the "middle class" is important to economists. So, when the World Bank estimates that the Nigerian middle class has grown by 28 per cent, there is a data domino effect with the last domino being GDP. In simplistic terms, when the GDP rises, so does the local economy, resulting in prosperity and poverty reduction ... or so the neo-liberal theory goes.

    This is when figures on millionaires come in. They allow perspective by looking at the extreme ends of the data domino chain: poverty and prosperity. If the number of millionaires rises faster than poverty reduction, then there are serious problems of inequality to be addressed. You might think such a scenario absurd, but look at what’s happening now in Nigeria: while the percentage of millionaires grows at 17.1 percent, the number of Nigerians living below the poverty line is also growing. Between 2010 and 2012 the percentage of Nigerians living below the poverty line grew to 67 per cent according to the World Bank.

    So, to misquote the renowned phrase: a rising tide does not lift all boats. Many will remain firmly on the sea bed during 2014, as poverty sees no change or even rises in some MINT countries. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that O’Neill’s prophetic acronyms turn out to be a double-edged sword. The blazing path to extreme wealth, buttressed by the less fortunate, has already been set by the BRICs. MINTs should learn from this and promote measures to counter extreme inequality. 

    In the meantime we can only guess what extravagance will arise from a new millionaire class in Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. We thought we saw it all with the BRICs.

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    Unlike Osborne's budget surplus pledge, Balls's only applies to current spending, leaving open the option of borrowing to fund infrastructure.

    In his speech tomorrow at the Fabian Society conference, Ed Balls will commit Labour to achieving a current budget surplus in the next parliament. He will say:

    I am today announcing a binding fiscal commitment. The next Labour government will balance the books and deliver a surplus on the current budget and falling national debt in the next Parliament. So my message to my party and the country is this: where this government has failed, we will finish the job.

    We will abolish the discredited idea of rolling five year targets and legislate for our tough fiscal rules within 12 months of the general election. Tough fiscal rules which will be independently audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

    We will get the current budget into surplus as soon as possible in the next Parliament. How fast we can go will depend on the state of the economy and public finances we inherit.

    At first sight, this might appear identical to the recent pledge by George Osborne to run a surplus by the end of the next parliament (in 2018-19 at present). But there is one crucial difference. While Osborne's promise applies to total government spending, Balls's only applies to current spending (day-to-day spending on public services, for instance teachers' salaries and hospital drugs). This leaves open the option of Labour borrowing to fund additional capital spending (investment in assets such as housing and roads). A Balls source told me tonight that the party would wait until closer to the election, when economic circumstances are clearer, before deciding whether to do so.

    As Balls said in my recent interview with him, "In the speech I gave at Reuters in the summer, I said, and Ed and I both said, that’s a decision we should make much closer to the election when we’ve got more information about what the state of the economy is going to be. So we’ve been very clear, no more borrowing for day-to-day spending, but on the capital side that’s something that we’re going to continue to look at. I’m not going to rule it out, but I’m also not going to say now that it’s definitely the right thing to do."

    In adopting this stance, Balls has revived the "golden rule" favoured by his mentor Gordon Brown, which stated that "over the economic cycle the government will borrow only to invest and that current spending will be met from taxation" (or, in these austere times, from cuts elsewhere. The big question for Labour is what balance the party will adopt betwen tax rises and cuts).

    This is undoubtedly the right policy decision but expect the Tories to respond by declaring that it destroys Labour's ostensible commitment to fiscal responsibility by creating the possibility of "more borrowing". Labour sources are keen to point out that the accompanying pledge to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP means that the party won't be able to ramp up capital spending to unsustainable levels but the onus will be on it to make the case for investment if it chooses to borrow. Polls show that a majority of voters are in favour of borrowing more to fund spending in areas such as housing but, for fear of being portrayed as profligate, Labour has yet to win this argument with the Tories.

    While it's Balls's surplus pledge that will dominate discussion tonight, I'm told that the speech will not be solely focused on the deficit and will include more on the reshaped economy promised by Ed Miliband in his speech last week; there will be one new unbriefed announcement.

    P.S. If you're going along to the Fabian conference, I'll be speaking at 1:45pm on "who will win in 2015?"

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    The latest figures from HMRC show that people earning over £150,000 paid almost £10bn more in tax in the three years when the 50p rate was in place. We need to get the deficit down in a fair way.

    The Tories like to fix the facts to fit the story they want to tell. Only yesterday we saw them desperately pull together dodgy figures to make the ludicrous claim that people are better off under them, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It only served to show just how out of touch they are.

    It’s similar to what they’ve done when it comes to the 50p tax rate. David Cameron and George Osborne are desperate to be able to claim the 50p tax raised as little money as possible. That makes it easier for them to justify giving a tax cut to millionaires at a time when ordinary families are facing a cost-of-living crisis. But the decision to cut the 50p rate was a highly political decision, driven not by the evidence but by David Cameron and George Osborne’s desire to give the richest people in our country a tax cut.

    The Tory-led government’s own assessment claims the cost of cutting the rate to 45p, excluding all behavioural changes, was over £3bn. To justify the tax cut the Tories argue that most of this potential revenue would be lost as a result of tax avoidance.  But crucially, the scale of the behavioural impact has been decided by Ministers, not HMRC. And latest figures from the HMRC show that people earning over £150,000 paid almost £10bn more in tax in the three years when the 50p rate was in place than was estimated at the time when the government did its assessment back in 2012.

    The Tories also claim that tax revenues rose after they cut the top rate of tax. But the ONS and OBR have both said that many of the highest earners moved income and delayed bonuses by a year after George Osborne’s 2012 Budget in order that they could benefit from the lower top rate of tax. This shifting of income will actually have cost the Treasury millions of pounds in lost revenue.

    Labour has been clear that when the deficit is high and ordinary families are seeing their real incomes fall, it simply can’t be right for David Cameron and George Osborne to give the richest people in the country a massive tax cut. So the next Labour government will make changes to create a fairer tax system. That means cracking down on tax avoidance, scrapping the shares for rights scheme and reversing the tax cut for hedge funds. We want a lower 10p starting rate of tax, which would help make work pay and cut taxes for 24 million people on middle and lower incomes.

    And in order to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear a fairer share of the burden, Ed Balls has today announced that the next Labour government will reverse the Tory top rate tax cut in the next Parliament while we are finishing the job of getting the deficit down.

    This is a fairer way to reduce the deficit. And the Tories will have to explain why the richest one per cent of earners should get a tax cut while tough times continue for everyone else.

    Shabana Mahmood is shadow exchequer secretary

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    Choosing to behave consciously as if the sexual attention of men is not my top priority has made more of a difference to how my life has turned out than I ever imagined.

    The ‘manosphere’ really hates short-haired girls. On "game" forums and in personal dating manifestos, the wickedness of short-haired women pops up time and time again as theme and warning - stay away from girls who’ve had their hair chopped off. They’re crazy, they’re deliberately destroying their femininity to “punish” men, but the last laugh will be on them, because the bitches will die alone. Yes, there are people who really believe this. In 2014.

    This week, a writer going by the handle Tuthmosis put out a short article explaining why “Girls With Short Hair are Damaged”. The piece has now received over 200,000 interactions on Facebook, so I’m not going to link to it again here. If you scrape through the layers of trolling, though, Tuthmosis' logical basis for declaring short-haired women 'damaged' is pretty interesting. 

    He writes that long hair is “almost universally attractive to men, when they’re actually speaking honestly...Women instinctively know this, which is why every American girl who cuts, and keeps, her hair short often does it for ulterior reasons . . . Short hair is a political statement. And, invariably, a girl who has gone through with a short cut — and is pleased with the changes in her reception — is damaged in some significant way. Short hair is a near-guarantee that a girl will be more abrasive, more masculine, and more deranged.”

    The essential argument is: Men like long hair, and what sane woman would ever want to do anything that decreases her capacity to please men? 

    The advantage of articles like this, pantomimic though they be, is that they make misogyny legible. There was a time when feminists had to do that all by ourselves, but now we don't have to point out the underlying assumptions of a lot of the bullshit we deal with every day, because there are people on the internet doing it for us.

    So I’m almost grateful to Tuthmosis for writing this particular piece of recreational sexist linkbait. I thought I'd never have an even passably good reason to write about how little things like short hair change the way patriarchy responds to you.  

    I’ve had short hair for most of my adult life. I keep it short partly because it suits me, partly because long hair is a whole lot of bother, but mostly because I don’t have a choice - my natural hair is limp and rubbish and doesn’t grow far past my shoulders without turning into witchy rat-tails. I’ve had a lot of fun with my boy-short crop. I’ve had it shaved, buzzed, dyed, undyed, a long pixie with a fringe, a half-head ‘Skrillesque’, and I’m currently rocking what the blog Autostraddle calls ALH (‘alternative lifestyle hair’), with a style somewhere between ‘Human League’ and "Androgynous Emo Frontman from 2005”.  Of course, there are problems. To be frank, my hair is a great deal gayer than I am, and sometimes accidentally cashes cheques that my heart and loins don’t deliver, to the extent that I’ve considered letting my hair go out out to Candy Bar to play all by itself. It’s fabulous enough to pull it off. Anyway.

    The author, with short hair.

    I’ve experimented with growing the crop out twice, encouraged both times by men I was dating. It seemed like the thing to do to make myself more pleasing to potential boyfriends, potential bosses, and other people with potential power over my personal happiness. Both times, it looked awful. It took a lot of effort and a surprising amount of money to maintain, and it still looked awful, and I didn’t feel like myself. Growing it past my chin took determination, because every day I’d look in the mirror and want to take the razor to it right then and there. 

    And yet, the amount of male attention I got - from friendly flirting to unwanted hassle - increased enormously. Not because I looked better, but because I looked like I was trying to look more like a girl. Because I was performing femme. Every time I cut it off, I noticed immediately that the amount of street harassment I received, from cat-calls to whispered sexual slurs to gropes and grabs on public transport, dropped to a fraction of what it had been - apart from total strangers coming up to tell me how much prettier I’d be if I only grew it out.  People have done this when I’ve been quietly working on my laptop in cafes,  because I really need to be interrupted in the middle of a deadline to be told I need to work harder on my girl game.

    Among the plus points for short hair is that makes it easier to read my book on the bus in peace. I mention this because there are clearly some men who rarely or never consider what it’s like for a person to negotiate femininity in the real world. There are plenty of reasons why a ‘sane’ woman might choose not to play up her ‘fertility signifiers’ every chance she gets, and not just because she’s got better things to do with her time.

    My little sister has had the opposite experience. She has naturally long, thick, glossy chestnut waves, but recently she experienced a severe shock, and it started to fall out in clumps, which wasn’t something I thought actually happened in real life. It was a hugely distressing experience for her, and I went with her to get it cut into something more manageable while she waits for it to grow back. 

    When I talked to her about this piece, she told me she really wasn't expecting the loss of her hair to affect her as much as it did - nor was she expecting the number of unsolicited comments from male friends telling her she never should never have cut it off, not knowing she had a medical condition. 

    For all that the ‘manosphere’ bangs on about evolutionary psychology and the effect of such attributes as long, luscious locks as natural signs of “fertility”, what’s really noticeable is that that to get hair of any length to look like it does in catalogues and on catwalks takes work. It takes energy and money and attention. Especially if yours is naturally wild, or frizzy, or afro. It takes creams and serums and tongs and irons and spray and mousse and a deft, time-consuming blow-dry technique to get your hair to look like Kate Middleton’s, and that’s the point. The point is to look like the performance of femininity matters enough to you that you’re prepared to work at it. I know a good few women who do all this every day and nonetheless manage to hold down jobs, raise families and write books, and I remain impressed, but I’ve never had that sort of patience. 

    Still, none of the women I know with long, pretty hair is anything like the “ideal woman” who’s spoken of in breathless terms on Men’s Rights Activism sites, Pickup Artist forums and in great canonical works of literature written and revered by men, because none of them are fictional. The “ideal woman”,  who wakes up looking like an underwear model, who is satisfied with her role as housewife and helpmeet but remains passionate enough to hold a man’s interest, who looks 'bangable' but never actually bangs, because that would make her a slut, is almost entirely fictional. She exists mainly as a standard against which every real women can be held and found wanting. She exists to justify some men’s incoherent rage at being denied the ideal woman they were promised as a reward for being the hero of their own story. Tuthmosis’ stories about how short-haired women have frightened and disappointed him are oddly amusing: he describes how one “once came over to my house, texted with one hand, while she jerked me off with the other”.

    If the story is true, you have to admire that sort of manual dexterity. Nonetheless, it seems to get at the crux of the problem that non-fictional women seem to present for a certain kind of man: we just aren't paying enough attention to their boners. 

    Tuthmosis is right, for all the wrong reasons. Wearing your hair short, or making any other personal life choice that works against the imperative to be as conventionally attractive and appealing to patriarchy as possible, is a political statement. And the threat that if we don’t behave, if we don’t play the game, we will end up alone and unloved is still a strategy of control. When I talk to young women about their fears and ambitions, it’s one of the main things they ask me about.

    Short cuts: Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong'o.

    The idea that women might not place pleasing men at the centre of our politics, consciously or unconsciously, makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Sometimes it makes them angry. I am regularly asked whether I think that feminism ought to be ‘rebranded’ in order to threaten men less, because anything a woman does, even attempt to chip away at a massive, slow-gringing superstructure of sexism, must appeal to men first, or it is meaningless. 

    If making your life mean more than pleasing men is "deranged", it's not just short-haired girls who are crazy.

    An infinite number of trolls with an infinite number of typewriters will occasionally produce truths, and on this point, yes, Tuthmosis is right. Chopping your hair off is “a political statement”. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made bigger ones in my life. But choosing to behave consciously as if the sexual attention and comfort of men is not my top priority has made more of a difference to how my life has turned out than I ever imagined. And that sort of choice still worries a great many women and girls, who learn from an early age to fear what Roosh V, well-known pick-up-artist and Tuthmosis’ editor, warns all “sick women” seeking to “punish” men by cutting their hair: “being lonely and having to settle for a brood of cats is not a good life for a woman, but that’s what will happen if you keep your hair short.”

    If I were really to stoop to the level of the original piece, I’d have to reassure readers that from personal experience, this sort of warning is there to be ignored. My own “game” hasn’t suffered at all from having short hair, and it’s a really good way of filtering out the douchecanoes. Neo-misogynists tend not to want to sleep with me, date me or wife me up however I wear my hair, because after five minutes of conversation it tends to transpire that I’m precisely the sort of mouthy, ambitious, slutty feminist banshee who haunts their nightmares, but if I keep my hair short we tend to waste less of each other’s time. If you've a ladyboner for sexist schmuckweasels, short hair isn't going to help, although they might let you administer a disappointing hand-job. 

    But if you want to meet men as equals, if you want to fill your life with amazing men and boys as lovers, as life-partners, as friends and colleagues who treat women and girls as human beings rather than a walking assemblage of “signs of fertility” - believe me, they are out there - then I wouldn’t start by changing your hair. I’d start by changing your politics, and surrounding yourself with people who want to change theirs, too.

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    Danny Alexander and former M&S boss Stuart Rose attacked Labour yesterday, but they used to insist that the top rate should remain in place.

    Labour's promise to reintroduce the 50p tax rate was not just an attempt to prove that the party is committed to deficit reduction but also to set a political trap for the Conservatives. By rushing to quote businessmen opposed to the policy, the Tories have walked into it. Rarely in recent months have they looked more like the party of the rich. Meanwhile, the public (as ever) overwhelmingly support the measure. A poll for the Mail on Sunday found 60 per cent of voters in favour, with just 17 per cent opposed.

    Many of those criticising the proposal have long argued against it (and often against progressive taxation of any kind) but it's worth noting a few who have changed their tune. Former M&S boss Stuart Rose, the chairman of Ocado, said yesterday that the 50p rate would "put at risk all the good work that has been done to put the economy back on track". But back in 2011, before George Osborne abolished it, he said: "I don't think that they should reduce the income tax rate. How would I explain to my secretary that I am getting less tax on my income, which is palpably bigger than hers, when hers is not going down? If, in the short term, a case was made for me to pay more than 50 per cent tax, which would help UK plc, I personally – Stuart Rose – would be prepared to pay more tax." Since austerity is going to continue for the entirety of the next parliament, it is hard to see how he can justify this volte-face.

    Then there's the Lib Dems. In response to Ed Balls's announcement, Danny Alexander said: "Labour's hypocrisy on taxation is breathtaking. In government they left a system full of loopholes for the wealthy to exploit. Thanks to our action in government to raise capital gains tax, reduce pensions tax relief for the wealthiest and tackle tax avoidance, Lib Dems in government are raising more from those who have the most and making Britain more competitive. Reintroducing the 50p rate wouldn't help with either objective."

    But before the 2012 Budget, he said repeatedly that the 50p rate should only be scrapped if a mansion tax was introduced. In July 2011, he toldThe Andrew Marr Show: "The idea that we're going to somehow shift our focus to the wealthiest in the country at a time when everyone's under pressure is just in cloud cuckoo land". No mansion tax was introduced, vetoed by David Cameron on the grounds that "our donors will never put up with it", but the 50p rate still went.

    Alexander will no doubt point out that the current top rate of 45p is higher than that seen for all but one month of Labour's 13 years in office. But this still doesn't explain why it was right to reduce it. Ed Miliband, who has hardly made a secret of his disagreements with the last government's approach, can now argue that only Labour (which would also introduce a mansion tax) is committed to ensuring that the rich bear their fair share of austerity.

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    Is it a temporary tax or a permanent one?

    In an attempt to counter Labour's populist (and popular) pledge to reintroduce the 50p tax rate, the Tories have been quoting Lord Myners' rather colourful denunciation of the policy. The former City minister (from 2008-10) said of Ed Balls's announcement: "The economic logic behind his thinking would not get him a pass at GCSE economics", adding that "We need to encourage productive enterprise and effort rather than resort to predatory taxation. It is not clear how this is going to help the UK economy compete with the world's growth economies. The UK already has an income tax system that is more progressive than most of our international competitors."

    But in opposing the policy, Myners is very much the exception that proves the rule. Almost all in Labour recognise that the 50p pledge is a smart way of proving that the party is committed to fair deficit reduction and of framing the Tories as the party of the rich. Alistair Darling, for instance, said on Sky News this morning: "I think in the context, when I increased the top rate of tax to 50p I did it on a temporary basis, I made it very clear that I didn’t see that as being a long-term position but the deficit reduction has taken far longer than anybody would want and when you talk about reducing the deficit, there are quite substantial cuts that are slated to come in after the next election and it just seems to me that we need to be fair about this so that people with the broadest shoulders carry their fair share of the burden."

    But it's worth highlighting a more subtle but significant divide within the party. In his speech at the Fabian Society conference yesterday and in his apperance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Ed Balls said several times that the 50p rate would only remain in place "while we get the deficit down". This is designed to present the move as a temporary, pragmatic measure, rather than as a permanent feature of the tax system. Balls, who is more conscious than some in the party of the need to avoid appearing anti-business, emphasised: "I've had very many businesspeople say to me over the last year or so, they say: 'We want to get the top rate of tax down' – well, of course they do. I want lower tax rates".

    But while Balls has adopted this pragmatic stance, there are many in Labour who are committed to a top rate of 50p as a matter of principle. Back in June 2010, when he was running for the Labour leadership, Ed Miliband put himself in this camp when he said:

    I would keep the 50p rate permanently. It's not just about reducing the deficit, it's about fairness in our society and that's why I'd keep the 50p tax rate, not just for a parliament.

    He has not repeated this declaration since but many suspect that it remains his private view. What is not in doubt is that a significant number of the party's MPs believe that the 50p rate is an essential means of redistributing income to reduce inequality, not merely of reducing the deficit.

    As for whether Labour would scrap the 50p rate once deficit reduction is complete, it's worth remembering Milton Friedman's line that "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme". Income tax itself was introduced in 1799 as a temporary measure to help fund the fight against Napoleon. Two hundred and fifteen years later, it is still with us.

    Update: In response to this post, a Labour spokesman told me that "what is permanent is our commitment to fairness in taxation" and that "the 50p rate is specifically tied to deficit reduction". The same source added that the party would have "more to say" in the coming months about reducing tax avoidance, suggesting that it is looking at means of ensuring that it maximises revenue from the new rate.

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    At a time when the incomes of ordinary families are falling, the highest earners must contribute more to reduce government borrowing.

    Labour’s campaign on the cost-of-living-crisis has clearly struck a chord. People know that – whatever the Treasury may claim – it has been getting harder to cover all their costs as prices rise and wages fall. Raising living standards for the long-term will be a huge challenge, particularly at a time when getting the deficit down means that there is very little money around. But with the right mix of policies I believe that we can do it.

    Paying down the deficit is a necessary part of that mix. The Tories’ failure to balance the books in this Parliament, as they had promised, means that a Labour government will have to finish the job. Ed Balls’ commitment that Labour will get the current budget into surplus as soon as possible, and get the nation’s debt falling in the next Parliament, gives a firm foundation for the long-term reform we need.

    And that deficit reduction must be done in a fair way. At a time when the incomes of ordinary families are falling, the priority should not be tax cuts for the highest earners, but help for those on middle and low incomes. The Tories were wrong to cut taxes for the top one per cent and we now know that over the three years that the 50p tax rate was in place, those with incomes of £150,000 and above paid nearly £10bn more in tax than thought when George Osborne chose to cut it. Restoring the 50p rate will ensure that everyone is making a fair contribution to paying down the deficit.

    But while getting down the deficit is necessary, it is not sufficient. We also need to take some long-term – and difficult – decisions to change the way our economy works. Only then will we raise productivity and living standards. This is at the heart of my review into how we sustainably grow the economy. My work has taken me up and down the country and I’ve been struck by the creative energy which can drive our economy if only we can tap into it.

    How can we do that? Devolving the right economic powers to our cities and regions will be key. They are best placed to make long-term decisions based on the potential of their area. Providing the right funding networks for small but growing businesses is also vital. This is partly about reforming our banking system so that it is competitive and focused on the needs of the businesses they serve, and it is also about finding innovative ways of linking those with the money to those with the ideas. Underpinning it all we need an infrastructure system which is modern and focused on long-term growth.

    None of this is easy. Getting the deficit down will be tough. Devolving decision making and investing in infrastructure will at times be unpopular. But I believe that with a fair deficit reduction plan and long-term economic reforms we can raise living standards for all.

    Andrew Adonis is shadow infrastructure minister and is leading Labour's growth review

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    Balls has left himself with room to borrow to invest but the party's fiscal rules mean total spending will be falling for almost every year of the next parliament.

    Was Ed Balls's latest commitment to fiscal responsibility just smoke and mirrors? That's the suggestion on the front of today's Times, which declares "Labour’s spending spree to cost £25bn". The paper reports that the party has "quietly drawn up spending plans that would allow it to borrow £25 billion more than the Tories after the next election, despite promising to match George Osborne’s pledge of clearing the deficit.

    "A 'sleight of hand' by Ed Balls means he would be able to slow the pace of public cuts proposed by the Tories, opening up a further ideological divide between the two parties."

    This refers to the fact that while pledging to eliminate the current budget deficit by the end of the next parliament, Labour has left itself with room to borrow for capital spending (unlike George Osborne, who has vowed to achieve an absolute budget surplus by 2020 at the latest). Judging by the Times's report, you might assume that Balls had hidden this fact. But the reverse is the case. Labour isn't matching the Conservatives' pledge to eliminate the total deficit and Balls was careful not to suggest otherwise. As he said in his speech at the Fabian Society conference last weekend, 

    I am today announcing a binding fiscal commitment. The next Labour government will balance the books and deliver a surplus on the current budget [emphasis mine] and falling national debt in the next Parliament. So my message to my party and the country is this: where this government has failed, we will finish the job...We will get the current budget into surplus as soon as possible in the next Parliament. How fast we can go will depend on the state of the economy and public finances we inherit.

    There was no "sleight of hand". 

    Most of the media didn't bother to distinguish between current (day-to-day spending on public services, e.g. teachers' salaries and hospital drugs) and capital spending (investment in assets such as housing and roads) but the difference was there for those paying attention. 

    Labour's position remains that it will make a formal decision on whether to borrow for capital spending closer to the election when economic circumstances are clearer. As Balls said in my recent interview with him, "In the speech I gave at Reuters in the summer, I said, and Ed and I both said, that’s a decision we should make much closer to the election when we’ve got more information about what the state of the economy is going to be. So we’ve been very clear, no more borrowing for day-to-day spending, but on the capital side that’s something that we’re going to continue to look at. I’m not going to rule it out, but I’m also not going to say now that it’s definitely the right thing to do."

    So while there has been no deception from Balls, is he still planning a "spending spree" if he's back in the Treasury after May 2015? Again, the answer is no. As well as promising to eliminate the current budget surplus, Balls has also pledged to ensure "falling national debt" (as a proportion of GDP) in the next parliament. This second fiscal rule, which includes both current and capital expenditure, means that Labour won't be able to "spend like drunken sailors" regardless of what some on the left would wish. Total spending, the lion's share of which is current expenditure, will be falling for the majority of the next parliament. As the Times's own Daniel Finkelstein noted in his column yesterday, Labour is now committed to "a very difficult period of deficit reduction". Has the party left itself with room to spend more than the Tories? Absolutely. But there will be nothing resembling a "spending spree".

    Of course, were there to be another financial crisis or a similar disaster, it's possible that Labour would abandon one or both of its fiscal rules (as Gordon Brown did in 2008 and as George Osborne did in 2012) but that wouldn't be a spending spree but an acknowledgment of economic reality. 

    That the Times has taken none of the above into account has infuriated the party this morning. Labour has long been angered by what it views as the paper's increasingly partisan coverage under new editor John Witherow (a front page last year declaring "Labour engulfed by Co-op scandal" provoked particular ire) and today's splash will only worsen relations. 

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    Don’t be fooled by the bars and the mussel shacks – Clapham is no place to dance the night away.

    It must have been in the late spring of 1982. I went down to London from Oxford, where I was at university, to buy a bag of marijuana from a friend of a friend who had a room in a squat immediately behind Brixton police station. “It’s a great gaff to deal out of,” the bespectacled little fellow said. “I mean, this is the last place they’d come looking – right by their back door.” Maybe he was right; after all, it was only a year since Brixton had been up in flames, the railway bridge was still black with soot and the premises to either side of the squat were boarded up. It seemed reasonable to think that the police might have had more serious things on their mind.

    We took our bag – it was a big, green dustbin one and contained about half a pound of weed – and sauntered off into the city. Even with this plastic-wrapped potential jail sentence dangling from my hand, I didn’t feel particularly paranoid – but then some things don’t change and, statistically speaking, we were the wrong colour to get stopped and searched by the Met.

    My friend, who is now a thoroughly respectable provincial solicitor, suggested that we go up to Clapham Common and have a snooze with our grass on the grass, which we did. We then sauntered back down Clapham High Street, took the Tube to Victoria and got the coach back up to Oxford. The reason I vividly recall that day has nothing to do with the marijuana at all – obviously – and everything to do with Clapham High Street, because I remember thinking, as we trolled down it in the late afternoon sunlight, what a benighted and miserable stretch of road it was. It had none of the vigour and buzz of Brixton Road and on the way from the common to Clapham North Tube – where the commercial zone ends and the residential one begins – there can’t have been more than one or two restaurants and cafés and perhaps a boozer or two. As in Brixton, quite a few premises were boarded up, or their windows were fly-posted, and overall there was such an atmosphere of psychic despair that the rubbish drifting across the roadway reminded me of tumbleweed blowing through a western ghost town.

    Fast-forward 32 years and here I am on Clapham High Street again. It’s not terribly surprising – I live down the road in Stockwell – and at least once a week I find myself metonymically riding the 88 bus and having all sorts of rather conventional opinions. On this occasion, it was the night bus, because we’d been to a late screening at the Picturehouse, and the opinion was . . . well, it wasn’t so much an opinion as an experience of profound shock: who the hell were all these people?! And what the devil were they doing – many of them half-naked – on Clapham High Street at 12.30am on a Sunday morning in January?!

    I’m not so blinkered that I haven’t noticed the rising commercial tempo of Clapham – where there used to be a brace of hostelries, there are now scores of them. Indeed, along the stretch where once I toted my bag, it’s pretty much a continuous strip of tapas bars, pizza parlours, Belgian mussel shacks and Brazilian steakhouses; there are assorted themed bars and several clubs, including Infernos, which – rather suitably – suffered a fire a few years ago. I knew all that but what I couldn’t quite credit was that come Saturday night all these joints really would be jumping – but they were and there was no room on the pavements, either, so that the crowds spilled out into the road.

    London barely went into recession after the 2007-2008 crash; last year, house prices in the capital rose by an average of £50,000, so that people who own property are, once again, earning more off it than they are from their employment. The visible evidence of this bunce is the crowds whooping it up in Clapham – Clapham!

    While they swill their property bubbles and dance the night away, there are many other Londoners living in a permanent hangover. I’m not in the business of inciting revolution but a society that can become so crazed and decadent that it seriously considers Clapham a fit destination for a wild night out is clearly in need of a savage reality check. What next, the Balham carnival? Mardi Gras in Mitcham? As I sat on the top deck of the bus, it occurred to me that I’d become a one-man constabulary – after all, while I knew there was criminality like this going on, it had never occurred to me to look for it by my own back door.

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    Michael Butler was a man with a mission in life, not simply a diplomatic mission on his CV.

    It’s hard to list many great British diplomats: the most memorable figures have historically been colonial viceroys, rather than conventional ambassadors. But Michael Butler, who died on Christmas Eve, was one of the country’s greatest and possibly the last of his kind. The Foreign Office would do well to reflect on what made him exceptional.

    Michael Butler was a man with a mission in life, not simply a diplomatic mission on his CV. He was a passionate believer in Britain’s membership of the European Union (initially the EEC). He was involved in the negotiations to get us in as well as the 1975 referendum to keep us in, and he spearheaded Margaret Thatcher’s campaign to get our money back from Europe. During his career, he worked for prime ministers who were besotted with Europe (Edward Heath), indifferent to Europe (Harold Wilson and James Callaghan) and hostile to Europe (Thatcher). At every stage he adapted his personal views to the requirements of the elected government while keeping in his sights the ultimate goal in which he, if not they, believed.

    In this way, he showed that it is perfectly possible to be a loyal civil servant while having strong views of your own. It is actually a huge strength when it comes to speaking truth to power, and few civil servants have done that more vigorously than Butler. We have all heard of conviction politicians; Butler was a conviction civil servant.

    He was an example not only of independence of thought but also independence of action. It was quite something for a young member of the British embassy in Paris to be declared persona non grata by the French government for getting up General de Gaulle’s nose and subverting his efforts to keep Britain out of Europe. Later, when Butler was Britain’s permanent representative to Europe, his clashes with his French opposite number were legendary. I used to be smuggled into the back row of meetings to witness them and learned that diplomacy could be a blood sport.

    He was also a man who came up with solutions rather than tepidly reporting the views of others. Britain’s budget contribution to Europe, launching the single market and the idea of the European Currency Unit (the precursor to the euro) all bore Butler’s imprint, demonstrating that real diplomacy is about doing rather than elegant drafting.

    He was not especially popular with the Foreign Office or the rest of Whitehall. He was unusually disinterested in promoting his own career. Perhaps this stemmed from having a much broader hinterland than most diplomats. He was a leading collector of 17th-century Chinese porcelain. I recall his days in Washington where, far from Europe and visibly out of his element, he roamed antique shops and market stalls, triumphantly carrying off masterpieces unrecognised as such by their previous owners.

    The Foreign Office has many talented and courageous diplomats but diplomacy has changed, with more and more business conducted directly between ministers, reducing the role of many ambassadors to little more than hotel-keepers for visiting delegations.

    Diplomatic memoirs increasingly read as slightly desperate appeals for personal recognition: “Remember me: I was there even if you couldn’t see me in the pictures.” Michael Butler wrote about his subject – Europe – rather than himself, reflecting the self-confidence and independence that made him a great practitioner of diplomacy as it used to be. 

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    The end of sound? This sane and humane book looks at the maddening encroachment of noise into every part of our lives.

    Sonic Wonderland: a Scientific Odyssey of Sound 
    Trevor Cox
    Bodley Head, £20, 320pp

    Asked in a recent interview to nominate the “best thing he had heard in 2013”, the American songwriter Bill Callahan’s only response was: “Silence.” Setting aside the question of how he experienced this now rare phenomenon, it is hard not to take his point: the world has become increasingly cacophonous, our cities so noisy that many songbird numbers are declining, our seas a maelstrom of sonar and seabed drilling, while the same subsidy-driven class that covered upland hills with toxic conifer plantations back in the 1980s now devotes itself to industrialising our wildest and formerly quietest places. Meanwhile, new projects pollute the soundscape further. As Trevor Cox notes:

    Human-made noise is forcing animals to change their calls, including under­water animals and fish. Are offshore wind farms an environmentally friendly way to make electricity? Possibly not, if you are a harbour seal being bombarded with thumping pile driving as the turbines are installed in the seabed . . . the noise generated by pile driving is huge . . . and could physically damage the auditory systems of animals.

    Yet it is not just birds and seals that are affected: noise pollution also causes significant physical and psychological stresses in humans. In spite of visionary warnings – going back to the Nobel prizewinner Robert Koch’s 1905 remark, “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague” – we have been slow to see the impact of the maddening racket we make, on our environment and on ourselves.

    The end of silence is just one aspect of the modern soundscape, however. Of equal concern is a growing reduction in quality, (the difference, to put it crudely, between sound and noise) and it is sound quality that Cox explores and celebrates in this scrupulous and compelling “scientific odyssey”. An acoustic engineer, Cox dedicates his life to eliminating bad soundscapes, (or restoring damaged ones), with an emphasis, in recent years, on how “poor acoustics and high noise levels in classrooms affect learning” (anyone who has ever tried to do anything in an open-plan office will be cheering already). In order to eliminate all this damaging noise, though, we have to train our ears to be more sophisticated (as Cox points out, the “dom­inance of the visual has . . . dulled all of our other senses”) so that we can recognise what is good in a soundscape and what is harmful. Inured to traffic and construction noise, to muzak and mobile-phone gabble, we are becoming desensitised to the finer qualities of sound. The longer we tolerate all that noise, the further our appreciation will be degraded – and the unhealthier, both physically and mentally, we will become.

    In his pioneering call for “one square inch of silence” in the American landscape, the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton recalls the Native American Chief Seattle’s poignant observation, on the occasion of being obliged to “sell” his homeland to the US government: “And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?” It is this question of soundscape quality that marks Sonic Wonderland out, not only as a fascinating book about the more recherché areas of acoustic science but as an immensely valuable contribution to any environmentalist’s library.

    Cox writes wonderfully, alternating between lyricism, expert testimony and self-deprecating humour to explore the most everyday problems an acoustician faces (how to rescue a badly built concert hall for its audience, say) as well as exotic phenomena such as singing sands and tunnels with such extreme amplification they turn the rumble of a skateboard into something that resembles “an approaching freight train”.

    The chapters on the taxonomy of echoes (a delightful concept in itself and a reminder that we have failed to evolve a suitable language for conveying sounds in words) and on the ways in which sound can travel round corners are highly engaging but they also prompt wider speculation about the subtler effects of sound on our sanity.

    Here, I was reminded of the Marabar Caves scene in E M Forster’s A Passage to India, of how so much of what befalls Aziz and Adela later in the book originates with that fateful echo. How many crimes, social transgressions and outbreaks of temporary madness are provoked by noise? What will we lose in ourselves if we continue to lose the quality of our soundscapes?

    One cannot help thinking that Cox’s closing remark – “if we all listened to and cared for the sonic wonders around us, as I now try to do, we would start to build a better-sounding world” – is too modest; had he gone on to add “a more sane and humane world”, few would disagree, on the basis of this very sane and humane book.

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    Politics is full of knockers.

    Kwasi Kwarteng MP is one of Cameron’s bankers and a member of the Brigade of Old Etonians. Not short of a few bob, he has called on Britain to work harder and longer and takes a hardline approach to welfare. He’s backed the docking of benefits for claimants who fail to turn up for a Jobcentre Plus interview. So the Hon Member must be mortified at failing to turn up for a visit by the work and pensions select committee to Bedfordshire to study the impact of cuts on council-tax benefit. The charabanc left Westminster without Kwarteng. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, so I’m sure he’ll agree with me that his £66,396 salary should be “sanctioned” for missing the trip.

    Ken Clarke remains an invisible man despite serving in every Tory regime since Ted Heath’s era. The woman behind the desk in Trade and Industry Towers didn’t click who the cabinet minister is when he tried to gain entry to the department. Clarke huffed and puffed about red tape as he was asked to fill in a form to hold a briefing with his fellow minister Michael Fallon on, er, cutting red tape. “Mercifully,” Clarke muttered under his breath, “I’m still not recognised in the majority of the places I go.” Anonymity may be the key to his longevity. Cameron won’t sack Clarke if he doesn’t notice that he attends cabinet meetings.

    The Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, castigated the Labour government’s failure to release secret files on the “Shrewsbury 24” building workers, prosecuted for conspiracy following a 1972 national pay strike. Speaking at a Commons gathering before Labour MPs voted 120-3 for the ConDems to publish the files, Red Len said that Labour had missed a 13-year opportunity to do the same. The vote may be a moral victory for the campaign to show that the Shrewsbury pickets were victims of an establishment conspiracy, but publication of the files is not yet guaranteed.

    Politics is full of knockers. There I was, reading the Tory maverick Douglas Carswell recounting how he heroically chased and caught a shoplifter in Clacton, when my phone beeped. It was from a snout claiming an eyewitness had seen two security guards stop the villain, not Essex’s answer to Batman. My informant may, of course, have been confused by the melee.

    Should the Nazi uniform row Tory storm trooper Aidan Burley think he hears a low, droning sound when he walks down the library corridor, he’s right. Labour MPs have taken to humming the Dam Busters theme when they pass Dave’s Blue Shirt.

    The things you hear in Westminster – a Labour MP asked parliamentary staff to work as waiters when she held a Saturday dinner party at her home.

    Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

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    We’ve had enough food-chain exposés in recent years, but this is a long investigative work.

    Farmageddon; the True Cost of Cheap Meat
    Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott
    Bloomsbury, 448pp, £12.99

    In the month that West Country beef and lamb producers finally won their hard-fought battle for protected EU status, we could be forgiven for feeling pretty damn proud of British food. Farmers boasted that it’s the lush grass that makes their meat so good: indeed, to merit the coveted PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) mark, cattle must have spent at least six months of the year on pasture. You might naively believe that’s the bare minimum they could expect – grazing is just what cattle do.

    Not always, as readers of the unambiguously titled Farmageddon will discover. Philip Lymbery, chief executive of the organisation Compassion in World Farming, reveals that the more modern way is to keep them “corralled into grassless pens carpeted in manure . . . on a diet of concentrated feed and antibiotics”, a practice that is commonplace in the vast plains of North and South America and starting to make inroads here.

    The idea doesn’t suit everyone: soon after the book went to press, Compassion in World Farming was alerted to a US-style “feedlot” in Lincolnshire after neighbours complained of the stench created by its almost 3,000 cattle. Plans have been submitted to expand the operation and Lymbery told the press he was worried that this might set a precedent – after all, the dangers of such intensive agriculture are exactly what he rails against in this book.

    We’ve had enough food-chain exposés in recent years to put even the hardiest carnivore off several decades of dinners: the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Pollan, Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blytheman have done the job so well, you might wonder whether Farmageddon can have much more to add. How many packed poultry sheds does one need to visit vicariously before free-range becomes the only option? Thankfully, this meaty account makes a distinctive and important contribution, eschewing the narrowly domestic focus of many of its predecessors in favour of a global investigation of how modern farming practices affect not only the animals and consumers concerned but farm workers, their local economy and the wider environment.

    Lymbery spent two years travelling with his co-writer, Isabel Oakeshott, then of the Sunday Times, with the aim of getting “under the skin of today’s food system”. In a globalised economy, that doesn’t just mean visiting the farm where the cow that produced your hamburger was reared but travelling to Argentina to meet the locals pushed off their land by the soya which fed that cow, the baby hospitalised by the relentless spraying of pesticides on to those newly deforested fields and the Peruvians going hungry because their fish stocks have been plundered for fertiliser.

    All these stories feed into the food we eat, yet, as Lymbery observes, most of us still cling to a romantic dream of local farms, “where chickens scratch around in the yard, a few pigs snooze and snort in muddy pens and contented cows chew the cud”. As this book shows, it’s high time we woke up – because two-thirds of the world’s 70 billion farm animals are factory farmed, and even if you think that poisoned groundwater in China’s Henan province doesn’t affect you, you may be rather more concerned about the vast pork industry that’s responsible for it when you read more about the link between such intensive systems and the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Or, indeed, when that mega-dairy moves in next door and kicks up a stink.

    Even the most insular city-dweller might be troubled, as I was, by factory-farmed meat having been found in numerous studies to be considerably less nutritious than its free-range counterpart, giving the lie to the idea that the £2 chicken represents a great leap forward for the poorest in our society. Anyone in Britain who dares to question the ethics of cheap meat is decried as a kind of Marie Antoinette figure who believes that only the rich should have the – considerable – privilege of eating animals. Farmageddon shows that the farming methods that deliver such apparent value are promoting obesity, as well as helping to push up food prices worldwide. In the long term, we will all suffer for it.

    Because of Lymbery’s role at Compassion in World Farming, I had expected to read more of the gruesome details of mistreatment, but Farmageddon’s main focus is on the future and how we can bring about change. As he explains in the introduction, “this is not a ‘poor animals’ book” – it’s far more interesting than that. Lymbery’s conclusion is not that we should all go vegetarian, or that only small, traditional farms hold the key to sustainable food production. Instead, the book is more concerned with how business can make a difference, arguing that commercial success and bad practice are not inevitable bedfellows – indeed, after the authors visit a small family pig farm in China, it’s plain that it is not the scale of the operation but the intensiveness with which it operates that represents the problem.

    In Lymbery’s words, Farmageddon asks “whether, in farming, big has to mean bad” and, in a world where agriculture has become just another industry, questions whether factory farms are really the most efficient way to feed the world. He is clear-sighted in acknowledging that here, consumer pressure can make all the difference; if the profits seem to lie with organic milk, or free-range eggs then giants such as McDonald’s will make the switch.

    The book also rubbishes the popular idea that the earth is simply not large enough to feed everyone without intensive farming, pointing out the vast inefficiencies it involves in terms of natural resources such as land, water, oil and grain. The world currently produces enough food for 11 billion people, yet so much is wasted that we can’t even feed the seven billion people on the planet at the moment. Put simply, Lymbery and Oakeshott argue that we cannot afford not to change; industrial farming is yet another luxury that the world will eventually have to give up. A return to more sustainable, mixed pasture-based systems would seem to be part of the solution – and, they suggest intriguingly, would actually leave individual farmers better off.

    All this continent-hopping makes Farmageddon an engaging read – and it also gives a full enough picture of the situation in the UK to preclude any misplaced smugness on the part of the British reader. Anyone after a realistic account of our global food chain, and the changes necessary for a sustainable future, will find much to get their teeth into here.

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    The former US Secretary of Defense on what the president never knew.

    Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
    Robert M Gates
    Knopf, 618pp, £25

    Remember the famous scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault bursts into the Café Américain and declares, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” before picking up his winnings and ordering everyone out? There are echoes of Captain Renault in the memoirs of Bob Gates – US secretary of state from 2006 to 2011 – which have just been released in the US and are full of incredulity and outrage at the cut-throat partisanship and point-scoring in Washington.

    While his personal integrity is beyond reproach, Gates is more acquainted than most with the greasy pole of government. Originally a Russia specialist he served on the National Security Council in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and first Bush administrations before becoming director of the CIA in 1991. The title of his previous memoir, published in 1996, says it all: From the Shadows: the Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. So, the reader of his latest volume might be surprised to read how he found himself on a “learning curve” on his return, “taking a crash course in asserting myself with senior officers”, taken aback by “shenanigans on the hill” and shocked by “bureaucratic bushfires” in the Pentagon.

    As he is the consummate establishment figure, Gates’s bridge-burning, page-turning account of the frustrations of office has taken some by surprise. Having served during George W Bush’s second term and the first two years of the Obama administration – the only defence secretary ever to survive a change of parties – he had a ringside seat for some of the most important national security decisions taken by the US in the post-9/11 era.

    Gates, an old-fashioned realist, believes that American foreign policy has become overly “militarised” in recent years, a process that started under Bush Jr and the “simplistic” freedom agenda of his first term. The Obama White House is more centralised and controlling on issues of national security than any since the days of Nixon and Kissinger. Worse still, partisan politics has infected the highest levels of decision-making on national security. Vested interests are pandered to, and campaign staffers and pollsters hold disproportionate sway. In order to wrest control back, the military has also begun to sink to the same level, engaging in cycles of leaks and counter-leaks in order to push its own agenda.

    Gates’s longevity in office can partly be explained by the fact he is seen as being above such dark arts. On taking office in 2006, he also had the immediate advantage that he wasn’t Donald Rumsfeld. For Bush, he was a pliable and trustworthy replacement, who could be relied upon not to obstruct the increasingly desperate attempts to salvage something from the campaign in Iraq. Obama’s decision to keep him on was based on the recognition that he was not tarred by the excesses of the early Bush years and that he could act as an experienced interlocutor between the White House and the military (though, arguably, he became a pawn between them). Obama’s sensitivity about what he perceived as a lack of respect from some senior generals is a fascinating subtext of the book

    While Gates respects the conviction and bravery of both presidents – and records how they often went against the worst instincts of their entourages – he was not close to either. Asked to travel to the Bushes’ ranch at Crawford to discuss his return to office in 2006, he is told that the dress code is “ranch casual” (sports shirts and khakis or jeans). Uncomfortable with the implied informality, he opts for a blazer and slacks. He notes with admiration that Obama never took off his tie in the Oval Office, as a sign of “respect for the office”. But Gates’s lack of interest in basketball or golf meant that they struggled when it came to small talk – and the generational rift between them was underlined by their different views on gays in the military.

    While his memoir weighs in at over 600 pages, Gates was not much of a talker in meetings at the White House Situation Room. It is only when his temper frayed that he found his voice – venting at junior members of Obama’s team, letting loose on General Stanley McChrystal after his disastrous interview in Rolling Stone magazine, and going for the jugular in some of his encounters with Congress and the Senate. He also describes how he fired missives at several foreign leaders for their failure to live up to the standards expected of allies (notably Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak). The UK, America’s chief ally in these two wars, is, it is worth noting, barely mentioned.

    Gates’s greatest contempt is reserved for Vice President Joe Biden, whom he describes as having got nearly every major foreign-policy decision wrong over the past four decades. Yet his own political antennae are not particularly well-tuned. Time and again he misses a beat, finds himself at the mercy of events, sidelined or blindsided as the bullets fly around him. While preparing modest military reinforcements for Iraq in 2006-07, he is completely taken by surprise as Bush goes against nearly all advice and orders a huge surge of troops (something that, once it was on the agenda, Gates did prove adept at facilitating).

    He fiercely opposes an Israeli air strike against a nuclear weapon’s installation in Syria in 2007, only for Bush to ignore him and give Israel the green light (forcing Gates to concede that “a big problem was solved and none of my fears were realised”). He is in an even smaller minority who opposes the Bin Laden raid in favour of a drone strike. Again, to his credit, he concedes that the president gets the decision right.

    Duty is dedicated to the US’s armed forces, whose sacrifices move Gates to tears on more than one occasion. His lasting achievement, and the distinctive feature of his tenure, was to become the “Soldier’s Secretary”, who lobbied for better equipment and took a genuine interest in improving the care and living conditions of troops and their families. But his own sense of duty was a very traditional one that involved only venturing his opinion when the president asked for it.

    His most stinging criticism of President Obama is that he failed to provide sufficient leadership in the Afghan campaign and did not believe in his own strategy there. But Gates never raised this or his other main concern – about the centralisation of decision-making in the White House – with Obama directly. “What I didn’t tell the president”, he writes on more than one occasion – perhaps that might have been a better title for his book.

    John Bew is an award-winning historian and a New Statesman contributing writer

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    Banking on victory: Simon Heffer reviews three tomes on Britain’s war with Napoleon.

    Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815
    Philip Dwyer
    Bloomsbury, 800pp, £30

    Wellington: the Path to Victory, 1769-1814
    Rory Muir
    Yale University Press, 728pp, £30

    Britain Against Napoleon: the Organization of Victory, 1793-1815
    Roger Knight
    Allen Lane, 720pp, £30

    As we endure the torrent of books of varying quality recalling the events in Europe of a century ago, we are blessed with others of exceptional quality that examine the peril that Britain was in two centuries ago. This year may be about the memories of Sarajevo in 1914 and the cataclysm that followed, but in 1814 Europe was already wearied by war, its dynamics were changing and a century of relative calm in Britain was about to be ushered in by the British triumph at Waterloo in June 1815 and the final defeat of Napoleon.

    These three works of exemplary scholarship tell different aspects of the story. Citizen Emperor is the second volume of Philip Dwyer’s biography of the Corsican general and deals with his years of power between 1799 and the defeat at Waterloo. Rory Muir’s life of Wellington is the first of two volumes, finishing on the eve of Waterloo – the ultimate cliffhanger – and will be followed by a second volume to mark the bicentenary of the battle and also covering the remainder of Wellington’s life as a politician and statesman. Roger Knight’s work is of less conventional form but is perhaps the most intriguing of the three: he examines not the military heroics that brought Napoleon to his knees but the way in which Britain prepared for the final onslaught against him. Although both the biographies clarify men whose realities have been deeply obscured by myths and legends, Knight’s work is truly ground-breaking in showing how Britain, a country that had prided itself on the encouragement of individualism, made a collective effort for victory that was not seen again in such intensity until 1940.

    Knight was deputy director of the National Maritime Museum and wrote a magisterial life of Nelson for his bicen­tenary in 2005. In Britain Against Napoleon he describes the tension between a France that had the strongest army in Europe and a Britain with the strongest navy. So long as the English Channel belonged to the Royal Navy there was nothing to fear; but an invas­ion would leave the country at the mercy of the French, a land where revolution was still smouldering.

    The threat lasted from 1793 until 1815, with only brief interruptions. The society that sought to resist it was no tyranny and was therefore subject to changes of government. England was outnumbered and, it feared, could be outgunned. The principal commodity needed to counter the threat was not so much manpower as money, raised by the City of London and used to stoke the fires of the Industrial Revolution to make weaponry and ships. Knight argues that several times between 1796 and 1798, and again in the years after 1807, Britain came close to being unable to afford to fight the war because of financial exhaustion and sometimes lacked the focus to fight it because of political upheaval – not least in 1812 when the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, Spencer Perceval, lost his life for reasons unconnected with the international emergency.

    Britain was fortunate that in the late 1780s Pitt the Younger had made it his business to renew and refresh an army diminished by defeat in the war against America. By the time war broke out, the navy was at the peak of its power, contrasting with a French fleet in poor repair, riddled with mutinies and largely in port. By 1793 he had also sought to improve domestic and international communications for the purpose of economic efficiency, but this infrastructure would also help mobilise the war effort as part of this improvement was focused on the Post Office. All this meant that when war came, actions in the Baltic and the Iberian peninsula could be conducted smoothly because of Britain’s command of the ocean and well-organised supply lines.

    There were two means of dealing with manpower shortages. Men were impressed (or press-ganged) for the navy, which caused particular bouts of civil unrest in the mid-1790s; and large numbers of foreign mercenaries were signed up to the army – “Russians, Poles, Germans, Italians . . . we had one Cinghalese,” an officer of the 60th Regiment noted in 1799. There were also French who changed sides, loyalties being fluid in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. The militia was beefed up but at times it was hard to provision it; and when shortages caused the price of food to rise in the mid-1790s, the soldiery took part enthusiastically in the food riots that followed.

    The organisation of war rested first and foremost with a civil service that Knight describes as “patchwork” in the 1790s: some of it efficient, other parts “useless”. As the war went on, however, the offices of transport, customs and excise and agriculture sharpened up their acts, ensuring revenue was raised, people were fed and supplies and men moved to where they needed to be. To suppress restiveness at home, the government also ensured the populace had food; and to assist the war effort, British intelligence operations were developed and expanded.

    Soldiers and sailors were efficiently fed, even if not very well. Knight quotes a sailor in 1812 telling his wife that the beef that came in their rations had been in salt for seven years. Knight also gives some astonishing facts about the provis­ioning of the services during expedition to fight the French in the West Indies in 1801. This required 83,428 tons of biscuits, and it was quite usual for 30 head of live cattle to be carried on the main gundeck of a ship as it sailed across the Atlantic.

    The effort not just of organisation but of keeping the country together in the face of mortal peril, was too much for Pitt. His surgeon wrote that Pitt “died of old age at forty-six, as much as if he had been ninety”. Although his death ushered in a period of instability, the Duke of Portland’s admin­istration was confident enough to commit itself to helping drive the French out of the Iberian peninsula in 1808, which required vast expense and another enormous logistical effort. The threat of invasion at home had not diminished either: Martello towers were put up around the coast, dockyards built and modernised, volunteer battalions formed. There was a huge – but temporary – expansion in the civil service to keep on top of so many demands.

    In the private sector, the industries supplying the army and navy made what Knight calls “spectacular advances” during the war. The warship-building business went into overdrive, so much so that supplies of timber became short; between 1803 and 1815, 84 per cent of ships were built in private as opposed to royal dockyards. This caused towns such as Great Yarmouth to become rich out of the war. Although taxation rose to pay for all this, so too, thanks to the good office of the City, did borrowing. High import duties on goods from the East Indies also helped. In 1811 total government expenditure was £85m, just over half of it (£43m) going on army, navy and ordnance. Luckily for the British, Napoleon’s decision to overstretch himself in Russia was the beginning of the end for him, and Britain’s resources lasted until total victory – with the country’s economy and mercantile life modernised as a by-product.

    Looking at all this from the defeated emperor’s perspective, Philip Dwyer, in a book of meticulous research and beautifully detailed descriptions of Napoleon’s military adventures, brings home the full horrific cost of the march on Russia. With 300,000 Russians dead defending their homeland, he reckons a million died between June 1812 and February 1813, with “the remnants of the army continuing to die from wounds, disease, malnutrition and exhaustion”. It was the near-culmination of a glorious career that had begun with a coup d’etat in 1799, the end of the French Revolution, the coronation of an emperor and the formation of a dynasty – placed on what was modestly called “the first throne of the universe” – and the triumph of Austerlitz. Dwyer points out that this battle, six weeks after Trafalgar, helped “obliterate” the memory of that defeat, not least because news of Nelson’s victory was not released until after Napoleon’s.

    Yet it was a short passage from the disaster in Russia seven years later to Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 and his confinement on Elba, whence he escaped under the noses of the Royal Navy in February 1815, believing France wanted him back. Dwyer depicts his subject as a gambler: Napoleon is said to have pronounced “the die is cast” as his ship sailed off to the mainland.

    His book ends with a suitably poetic account of the defeated emperor, a month after Waterloo, turning up at HMS Bellerophon and putting himself under the protection of the British; as the ship departs from the Brittany coast, it is his last sight of France, with St Helena and the arsenic-laden wallpaper awaiting him.

    Although Rory Muir’s first volume on Wellington ends before the great battle, it is, like Dwyer’s biography, extensively researched and anchored in fact, and gives an invaluable picture of the duke in his early years that will be unfamiliar to many who know only of his military exploits. Muir has researched his subject for 30 years and it shows. He goes into great detail about the peninsular war, which was fought over control of the Iberian peninsula, but is also revelatory about his subject’s career in India between 1796 and 1805.

    Wellington returned from India, aged just 35 and already a major-general and a knight. In dealing with His Majesty’s enemies on the subcontinent, he had shown himself cool-headed, intelligent and a good tactician who was developing into a decent strategist. One senses from Muir’s account that what Arthur Wellesley – as he then was – learned out there were the skills that would lead him to be recognised within a few years as the finest soldier in the army. As Muir makes clear, he was helped in his rise by the appointment of his brother Richard, the Earl of Mornington, as governor-general soon after his arrival there. Once Wellesley moved centre-stage, he never left it.

    To Muir, whose second volume – to judge by his first – cannot come soon enough, we are especially indebted for one useful bit of myth-busting. Wellington never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton: the words were put into his mouth by a French journalist, Charles de Montalembert, after the duke’s death. Wellington hated Eton and lasted only three years there before his mother was advised that the boy would come to very little and he should be educated elsewhere. It sounds all too similar to Winston Churchill at Harrow a century later and provokes further thoughts on the real seeds of, and the best training for, greatness.

    Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail and his books include “High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain” (Random House, £30)

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