Whether or not you include oil, Osborne's economic record is atrocious

Double-dip or not, stagnation is here for sure.

Earlier this week I wrote that overly focusing on the prospect of a "triple dip" recession was blinding too many to the equally damaging prospect of continued stagnation. Maybe I was too specific; it seems that some are still focusing on the last recession (the one we now call the double-dip).

The Telegraph quotes the chief economist of Henderson Global Investors, Simon Ward, who argues that "Britain never had a double dip recession". Building on the recent upward revisions to the ONS' estimates of growth in 2012, Ward says that:

The “phantom” recessions reflected continuing weak North Sea oil and gas extraction and when that was stripped out, it revealed that there had never been a ‘double-dip’ in the UK onshore economy.

Mr Ward said North Sea oil production is supply-driven, and while it has been weak because of reserves depletion and unusual maintenance shutdowns, "these are of no relevance to the wider economy so it is reasonable to strip out the North Sea when assessing underlying trends".

Of course, if it's necessary to retrospectively strip out resource extraction from estimates of the economy, it's necessary to strip it out entirely. That would present a rather different view of, for instance, the economic competency of Margaret Thatcher, presiding over the original North Sea oil boom. It would also be a blow for advocates of fracking, as their desired resource boom would be excluded from the metrics.

As it is, the ONS already produces a metric for GDP growth excluding oil and gas (it's series KLH8, if you want to check it out). It only goes back to 1997, so we can't test the Thatcher proposition, but it's pretty clear that our oil and gas industries have been declining for quite some time. Every time they've had an effect since 2003, it's been negative, and even before then, it was rarely hugely positive. It's fair to say that, if ignoring resource extraction makes Osborne look economically competent, it makes Gordon Brown look like a genius chancellor, consistently achieving even more growth than he is already given credit for.

As it is, we don't strip out those industries unless we're making a very specific point, because they are part of the economy, and GDP is supposed to be a measure of the whole economy, not just the parts which are reflective of "underlying trends".

But again, this is all arguing a moot point. Even if we did strip out the effects of oil and gas extraction from the first quarter of 2012 only, thus ensuring that George Osborne avoided a technical recession by the narrowest margin possible, he would still have a terrible record on growth. The real world growth figures for our double dip were contractions of 0.3, 0.1 and 0.3 per cent respectively for Q4 2011 and Q1+2 2012. The figures Ward wants to use instead show a contraction of 0.2 per cent, then perfect stagnation, and then a contraction of 0.3 per cent.

In no world is 0 per cent growth (and, as I've said before, contraction in per capita GDP) between two quarters of contraction acceptable. Yet by focusing so heavily on the difference between -0.1 per cent and 0 per cent, Osborne and his defenders are able to claim that it's just a statistical quirk that gives him his bad reputation, rather than something far more intrinsic.

Double dip… a bactrian camel with its newborn calf in Budapest, Hungary. 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

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.