Why we should hope the UK loses its AAA rating

It would expose the myth that the market punishes higher borrowing.

As a drowning man clings to a life raft, so George Osborne clings to the UK's AAA credit rating as proof of his "credibility". When Standard & Poor's reaffirmed the UK's top rating last month, Osborne declared: "this is a reminder that despite the economic problems we face, the world has confidence that we are dealing with them".

But with the Chancellor now likely to break his golden debt rule, it's possible and even probable that at least one agency (Moody's and Fitch currently have the UK on "negative outlook") will remove our AAA rating in the near future. If Osborne is to be believed, this would be a disastrous blow to our economic credibility. But, as so often with the Chancellor, there's no evidence for this claim. The US, for instance, has seen no rise in its borrowing costs since losing its AAA rating a year ago today, indeed, its rates have fallen. All the evidence we have suggests that the market is prepared to lend to countries that can borrow in their own currencies, such as the US, the UK and Japan, and that enjoy the benefits of an independent monetary policy, regardless of their credit ratings or their debt levels (Japan's national debt is 211 per cent of GDP, while ours is 66 per cent, a reminder that we were never on the "brink of bankruptcy").

Now, as PoliticsHome points out, Danny Alexander has hinted that he knows as much. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury told the BBC:

The credit rating is not the be-all and end-all.

What matters is have we got the right policy mix for the country to get people back into work, to support economic growth, to deal with the huge problems in our public finances and the credit agencies reflect on those things and the ratings they give are a reflection of the credibility of that mix.

In fact, one could go further than Alexander and argue that the loss of our AAA rating would be a positive development. It would explode the myth that borrowing for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher public spending) would lead to a bond market revolt and would strengthen the cause of those who argue that we shouldn't allow the agencies that rated Lehman Brothers as "safe", days before it filed for bankruptcy, to dictate our economic policy. It would also, of course, be a lethal blow to the political credibility of the current occupant of the Treasury. Osborne's deficit reduction plan was rooted in the need to preserve our AAA rating. If he fails in this task, why should voters trust him to do anything else?

Yet the loss of our AAA rating would finally liberate Osborne to pursue a plan that actually works. Once the belief that the market holds a veto on our borrowing levels is exposed as a myth, the Chancellor could finally stimulate growth through tax cuts and higher public spending. A growing economy could revive his reputation and that of his party. The path to redemption is open to Osborne. Unfortunately for the Tories, there is almost no chance of him taking it.

Chancellor George Osborne and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt watch the track cycling at the Olympics. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.