Paul Tucker attempts to spice up British monetary policy

Negative interest rates are like candy floss to central bankers, it is believed.

In the midst of his testimony to the treasury select committee, Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker gave a suggestion that Britain might be considering some unorthodox monetary policy of its own:

I hope we’ll think about whether there are constraints to setting negative interest rates. This would be an extraordinary thing to do and it needs to be thought through very carefully.

Such a move would be unlikely to affect the Bank's base rate. While we still have cash, that rate is pretty firmly stuck at the zero lower bound, because savers will always be able to withdraw savings as cash and horde it that way, safely out of reach of the banks trying to charge interest on their money.

Instead, it would be the rate paid on the Bank's overnight deposits which would be hit. This is the sum the Bank pays to other banks which leave their money with the Bank of England. It's basically the interest rate the Bank charges when it's actually acting like a bank. It can get away with it because, while withdrawing your savings and stuffing them under a pillow may work for you or I, it's less of an option for Halifax or HSBC.

The Financial Times' David Keohane thinks that the statements, which echo suggestions in the minutes of the monetary policy committee released last week, could be an attempt to talk down the value of the pound. Keohane writes:

Throwing around the negative interest rates idea has become very trendy all of a sudden with Draghi, Praet and Constancio weighing in and, we'd argue, using the threat to substitute for policy impotence.

Was Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker doing the same thing? Using a jedi-trick to talk down sterling perchance?

Of course, as Keohane points out, if that was the aim, it didn't do a whole lot of good. The effect of Tucker's words is almost lost in the general volatility of the market today:

Maybe the Bank of England is just feeling a little bit jealous of its Japanese counterpart? After all, they're gearing up to do all kinds of cool new things with monetary policy — Foreign bond purchases! Stock exchange targeting! Capital stock nationalisation using the profits of quantitative easing! — while we're stuck with boring old open market policy, where a chart from eight months ago is still accurate.

Continuing the theme of literally illustrating metaphors, this is a picture of some spices. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Show Hide image

The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.