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How it all went wrong for Spain

Spain may soon require a massive aid package. How did Europe's fifth largest economy end up here?


by Chris Marshall on Jul 27, 2012 at 08:31

How it all went wrong for Spain

Spanish economic miracle!

It’s the start of 2005 and over the next 12 months more houses will be built in Spain than in Italy, Germany and France combined.

The unemployment rate will also fall to a record low this year.

There are construction jobs aplenty. This is the engine of Spain’s economic boom, one that is sucking up all of the country’s resources including spending by the central government and the 17 autonomous regions to which it cedes so much control.

Housing is one super-safe investment that everyone wants in these early-noughties boom years, not least foreign speculators who see Spain as less risky since it ditched the peseta and joined the euro.

A population swollen by a baby boom and huge inflow of foreign workers, which can easily get hold of mortgages at low interest rates, is on its way to tripling house prices in just 11 years. The only way is up. And companies are getting in on the action too, surfing on a wave of easy money and pushing up the price of commercial real estate.

Debt fuels growth, fuels wealth…

It’s now 2006 and interest rates have started rising. But still it goes on: debt creates growth, which creates wealth.

Two years later and ‘España va bien’ continues the chant from presiding politicians – Spain is doing well – even as the US credit crunch pitilessly shuts the door on bank lending around the world.

Then recession. Bereft of its former growth engine, economic growth stalls at the end of 2008, and workers – particularly those in a rapidly downsizing construction sector – are the victims. So are homeowners, who see the value of their homes do the unthinkable: go down.

The lid is lifted

Suddenly, with the bursting of the housing bubble, everyone realises just how outrageous it has all been. Absurd! An oversupply of up to a million homes has since been exposed.

Half of Spain’s under-25s are eventually to become unemployed. Public debt will rise as the government splashes out to help the economy and as taxes from construction activity vanish. In the words of economists, as some imbalances started to correct, others simply take their place.

March 2009, five months after the British government announced it was bailing out its banks, and the Spanish president who presided over much of the long housing boom, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, announces a government rescue of Caja Castilla la Mancha, a big regional bank.

Zapatero follows up with severe economic reforms to clean up the country’s public finances, overhauling the pensions system and labour laws even after demonstrators hold their first general strike for eight years.   

It all falls apart

It’s November 2011 and with investors increasingly pressuring Spain into more reforms, an election hands power to centre-right president Mariano Rajoy who proceeds to dismantle social rights accumulated over decades in a desperate bid for financial stability.

But it can’t be done quickly enough. Like here in the UK, Spain needs to unblock its banking system, which still carries the burden of loans secured during the good years. They can’t lend as they need to shed their debt, plus they can’t get funding. Without banks the wider economy is stuck on pause.

The most needy of these is Bankia, a patchwork of seven troubled banks, rife with bad loans from the burst bubble. In May 2012 a nascent run on the bank prompts the authorities to rescue the bank. Just two weeks later, though, the bank’s bosses provoke fury when they reveal that the multimillion-euro profit Bankia previously announced for 2011 was really a stonking €2.98 billion (£2.33 billion) loss. More money will be needed; money that Spain’s ‘Frob’ bailout fund just doesn’t have – and which could push Spain’s worsening finances deeper into the red.

So Spain, like Greece, Ireland and Portugal before it – though desperate to stress it is getting a loan, not a ‘rescue’ – seeks €100 billion (£78.3 billion) from eurozone funds, which after much political toing and froing, it gets.

‘More!’ shout investors

But by now, investors in government bonds are sending a strong message to Spain: it’s not just your banks that need saving, it’s your whole financial system, government n’all. The country’s economy isn’t growing enough amid the austerity measures. And the banking loan isn’t the ‘circuit breaker’ between the banking system and government that the City had been hoping for – it keeps them connected in a perilous loop of growing debt.

The government relies on these powerful bond investors to fund its budget, but they are selling the bonds, pushing up the amount they expect back from the government in exchange for holding its ‘debt’.

‘Naughty students’ of austerity

All the while, Spain’s government tries to rein in its autonomous regions, which have real power over big issues such as health and education. Described in the Spanish press as the 'naughty students' of austerity, the regions haven’t cut spending to match the decline in money coming in that resulted from the housing bust and downturn. Nor has their accounting been up to scratch.

The regions have missed their budget targets, in part because of their discretion over increasingly squeezed welfare programmes, which are politically tricky to downsize.

Central government efforts to corral the regions into improving their behaviour comes too late, and Valencia – just last Friday – becomes the first region to call for aid from a €18 billion (£14.1 billion) government fund. Catalonia – Spain’s richest but most indebted region – says it will decide later on whether to tap the fund, which comes with strings attached.

The reaction from bond investors is unsurprising; they push up the government’s borrowing costs even higher – and even closer to a bailout.

Rajoy and friends in denial

How can Spain get out of this? As it stands, Europe’s bailout pot isn’t really big enough – not to sustain Spain’s funding needs and then provide for the bailout for Italy that could follow (Spain is no special case here, it’s merely on bond investors’ menu del día).

The Spanish government, attempting to avoid the market stigma of such a clearly defined ‘bailout’, wants Europe’s policymaking central bank, the ECB, to help. The ECB could reactivate a scheme to buy Spanish government bonds, pushing against the pressure exerted by hard-selling bond investors. The ECB though isn’t in the game of bailing out governments, its chief Mario Draghi keeps on saying. And besides, this would only be a temporary solution, which could lead ratings agencies – organisations that decide how investable companies, governments etc are – to downgrade Spain’s status.

This could mean some investment funds are no longer to invest in the bonds, adding the pressure on Spain.

Spain can’t hold out. The bond market is signalling the final act in an all-too-familiar story of boom and bust.

45 comments so far. Why not have your say?

derek farman

Jul 27, 2012 at 12:33

Seems when you mix banks , politicians and developers together, disaster is sure to follow

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Jul 27, 2012 at 14:01

We should import some of the construction workers from Spain to the UK to help solve the housing crisis here.

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Jul 27, 2012 at 14:32


Debt does not fuel growth!

Work fuels growth and in turn enables debt to be paid.

As soon as workpace slackens, the deficit grows as does the debt pile, without any growth, as it's all you can manage to pay off part of the interest!

We're in the same boat in the UK - Osborne's borrowing to pay interest on debt, never-mind repay capital! He'll continue having to do that as long as HMG and LA overhead spending continues unabated, without any REAL cost cutting/efficiency drives.

The size of the annual public salary/pension/contractor bill simply prevents him paying off debt and interest.

Add to that the cost of all those milking the system, because they can!

eg MP's and MoD workers who are taking both an early pension and paid employment, out of our hard-earned tax revenue. And the rest!

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Jul 27, 2012 at 14:48


Is it better to work to fuel growth or better to borrow money and then when it comes to paying it back just inflate it away with a bit of money printing and start again on a boom bust? If you do the maths you might work out that borrowing money then having high inflation so you pay back less gives you more than paying for stuff as you go. Of course if you are owed the money and get it paid back with devalued money you are worse off. The government is in the position of the money printer so it is financially better for them to but things when money has a high value and pay it back after it has been devalued.

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Jul 27, 2012 at 16:00

Can't agree Jonathan.

Only people's output can fuel real growth.

I understand the inflationary mechanism you describe, which is in effect supported by the nations who deposit at IMF, where Mr Osborne does his borrowing.This is a system which is only tenable for the longer term provided the countries who produce an annual credit actually lust for development and production and we in turn maintain a "standard of living" which is worth lusting after in innovation and intellectual terms.

But in fact borrowing simply mortgages our personal and national future output, hence limits our future real growth.

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Anonymous 1 needed this 'off the record'

Jul 27, 2012 at 16:11

The logical result of your argument is that Spain must comprehensively default, and do it soon, ending the euro in chaos and disaster for the whole world.

Only Germany can prevent this, by quitting the euro first.


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John Thorley

Jul 27, 2012 at 16:24

I didn't know anyone else was advocating that Germany should be the one to leave the Euro. At last!

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Jul 27, 2012 at 16:34

Certainly Anon1.

Default is the natural result of sitting on your hands and watching debt rack up until bailout or bankruptcy are the only solutions. There comes a point when the available solution of improving output and/or reducing your internal overhead costs becomes too little, too late.

Unless of course some whiz from the US or the Behemoth Commercial Bank creates a magical product which will miraculously cures indebtedness, and is sold to gullible Europeans! Seems to happen about every 2 decades.

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Jul 27, 2012 at 16:44

Interesting scenario from Simon Baggot!

Even more interesting to consider possible Newmark/Neweuro/GBP exchange rates.

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derek farman

Jul 27, 2012 at 17:13

PHILMO .....there is a magical product . It's called tax collection. What is the largesse out there which has been evaded ? ...........20 trillion or so.

Can't understand why everyone is sitting on their hands.

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jon d

Jul 27, 2012 at 17:16

Little Ireland has bravely faced up to making cuts deep enough to regain control. The UK has to get control somehow, and doing what Ireland has done seems the only way. Therefore that route must be followed. Germany leaving the Euorozone just might be a good idea - it would push all the rotten states over the cliff quickly and allow real rebuilding to start. It's a pity to see mendacious Lord Oakshott making snide comments about Osborne's holding on to a tight fiscal policy - Osborne needs encouragement to tighten it further and take new types of real action like the Irish did, cutting the salaries of the higher paid salary workers in the puplic sector. This group has grown in salary and number in a completely indefensible way in the last 15 years and they need to be paid less. We have to remember that Gordon Brown sold a lot of long term bonds that will be maturing in 5 to 10 years time, and we in the UK HAVE to get sorted out before these become due, otherwise we will be our own crisis due to that.

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an elder one

Jul 27, 2012 at 17:32

Germany should leave the Euro; can't understand why they haven't already; do they still suffer a guilt over war syndrome!

An afterthought, would the UK really want a German empire on their doorstep, which seems a distinct possibility otherwise.

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Jul 27, 2012 at 17:36

Could someone please explain why they don't simply devalue the Euro to a point from where it started i.e 1.66 to the pound?

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an elder one

Jul 27, 2012 at 17:36

Though, perhaps Germany has found the arrangement too beneficial; until now say.

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Jul 27, 2012 at 17:38

df - needs to be a product which people can be happy with.

Right now most would see an increase as good money after bad, given the profligate style of many on the public payroll.

jd - very fair comment.

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Dileep Damle

Jul 27, 2012 at 17:57

Yes the only way out is for the good guys to leave the gang of the scroungers, at national and perasonal levels. So Germany and others to leave the Euro leaving the greeks, the spanish and the italinas to default. And at the personal level to tighten the welfare system and to return to positive REAL interest rates. If the rates are low and there is moneyprinting, might it be better for even savers to start borrowing to invest in real assets and pay back with devalued money eventually?

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John Thorley

Jul 27, 2012 at 19:34

'an elder one, I often read your posts on Citywire and a fair few of them I don't agree with however, on this topic I am completely in agreement with you!

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Jul 27, 2012 at 20:17

I'm with Philmo on this one .

in fact if you have the opportunity at the next election vote for Philmo.

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Angela Milton-Goodhead

Jul 27, 2012 at 22:57

During the property boom years, Malaga province collected 7% tax on property purchases & sales. A huge revenue. This revenue went directly into the

state coffers. It wasn't re-invested into the infra structure. Millions of purchases & sales, millions (possibly billions) of euros went directly to local goverment. I wonder what happened to all this unearned money?

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Jul 28, 2012 at 01:50

Germany should leave the Euro - but won't/ can't. The Super Mark would appreciate/ exports suffer. The opposite, of course, for the Club Med countries. Very painful to start with but at least they have self respect in again running their own economies and light at the end of a long tunnel.

But we really must learn the fundamental lesson that all of this is down to the EU. It wishes to create by stealth a country called Europe and, come the current crisis we can see where grand command headquarters will be: Berlin (with orders to the rest of Europe laundered through Brussels).

All that 'free' money transferred over the years from the likes of the UK and Germany to the weaker states must have seemed like a dream to those countries such as Greece, Spain and the like. But the dream turned into the inevitable nightmare.

The Euro elite will not, of course, give up on their gravy train so the next desperate step is along the lines of 'things have messed up-give us yet more power!

Better off out

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Dave Buchanan

Jul 28, 2012 at 07:52

The underlying problem is that any politician who tells 'the truth' about the economy won't get elected, any banker willing to implement the changes needed won't get hired and any worker willing to accept the necessary reduction in benefits will be ostracised by their peers. Moving from the current beleif of never ending growth with no additional effort means overcoming huge cultural inertia.

The meltdowns in Greece, Spain etc may help to do that. Hope that the UK and others learn in time to avoid the same scenario!

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Jul 28, 2012 at 08:50


You've absolutely nailed the core truth!

Far too many just don't have the self discipline or grasp of "what's right" and simply want an "easy life".

A headteacher friend of mine revealed that even decades ago it was quite clear that all, including poorly parented, but excepting the educationally impaired children entering primary school have a good grasp of right and wrong. But learning social skills enables them to understand subterfuge, which they will use unless honesty and self discipline is continually reinforced [both at home and at school] against a background of mixed modern attitudes in all walks of life.

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David Harvey

Jul 28, 2012 at 09:46

Like in Greece Spain began to rely on tourism with the banks offering loans for hotel building. Nothing to back them up but a 3 year contract from a tour company. To often the tour company would cancel on the hapless hotel owner leaving him to cope alone or lose the hotel. This was rife in Greece as hotels were built everywhere. The area used up was often a place of natural beauty that could have been the reason the tourists went there in the first place. As things started to become difficult for the tourist and room occupations dropped in tourist area they refused to recognise that the gravy train was becoming unstable and kept building. Then other countries offering holidays that people could afford things. I said to a friend once why are they building more when all you have is about 2 or 3 guests per hotel? He just wouldn't admit it was true even though he could see it in front of him.

This was a huge contribution to both Spain and Greece's downfall. Tourist relies on the health of the source nation and even a small loan rate increase can cripple it.

Of course it's easy to blame people who are doing what they can to make a better life because anything is better than what they have and after all the clever man from the bank says it's fine!!!

Dave Buchanan makes a good point but remember that here in the UK the voters in this country, like it or not, actually voted heavily toward the left. Because of the way our system here works ( or doesn't ), we ended up with a government that was not what we actually asked for. It would not be a surprise if they got voted out.

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Jul 28, 2012 at 10:21

When times are good you pay off your debt.When times are bad you now have debt which is managable.NO member of goverment,from any country over recent years, would ever impliment this as it wouldn't win votes.They have used smoke and mirrors to make us feel we were living the high life and we are as much to blame as the bankers,MP's....etc.

How many people in power and opposition tried crying wolf when all this was going on....?

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Jul 28, 2012 at 11:39

My wife and I went to Spain for the first time in 2005 and we were both struck by the amount of road infrastructure and new developments that were being completed. They had obviously invested vast amounts of money improving the tourist areas, including (quite strangely) rebuilding old forts. In hindsight they were obviously spending money they didn't have, and unfortunately it appears to have caught up with them.

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Jul 28, 2012 at 12:37

Firstly the building boom in Spain was not only fuelled by local demand but also through second home purchases by foreigners (incl. Brits) which literally dried up leaving unfinished properties and unpaid mortgages. Someone further arues thet tourism and hotels is not a reliable industry whereas it is recognised as a mainstream industry in many countries. The uncoordinated building planning which resulted from regional extravagances in Spain is a major cause, every region wanted to get on the bandwagon.

Other suggestions here that the stronger nations should leave the Euro appears somewhat cavalier. This would result in an immediate debasement of the Euro which would might help the indebted eurozone nations in the long run but wreak havoc in the creditor nations and their banking systems. The problem won't have gone away, but transferred

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an elder one

Jul 28, 2012 at 12:43

John Thorley, I think that in your disapproval of earlier posts by me, you must refer -at least - to that in the so-called declineof the construction industry; on that occasion I did not demur on your sentiments; of course health and happiness of the populus are greatly desirable; it's a question of balance of endeavour.

What I tried to say was that true advancement of civilisation comes about from intellectual and creative endeavour through the application of all scientific discovery in the form of products and treatments that enhance our lives. A country's wealth derives from how successful they are in that realm (near to home, Germany is a simple case in point).

I don't try to diminish services, they are the essential channels of distribution of the benefits of that wealth and are also admittedly a product of trade with the outside world (ergo our financial services, etc) that positively enhance our balance of payments, but being an engineer myself, I see the applications of science as the paramount endeavour to build a rich balance of trade for our country. We need cash to provide those enhancements of health and happiness in our existence, which are ultimately derived from trade with the outside world or borrowing; the latter is only accessible if the lenders think they'll get their cash back in due course; thus far we succeed partly through manipulation of our currency.

We seem to be clever at financial management, deriving considerable profit therefrom, but it ain't enough; we reckon ourselves to be a clever race altogether but apart from finance the matter seems to be too neglected by our governing elites; I don't pretend to know the solution, it's too complicated; as others have conjectured it's something of a cultural matter; I believe the skills and intellect abound but need political recognition and stimulation (education, benign regulation, etc) to create the necessary environment to come to full fruition.

A bit of a digression from the subject topic John, but I couldn't leave it there.

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Richard Brinton

Jul 28, 2012 at 13:39

There is sufficiency in the world for man's need but not man's greed. (Mahatma Gandhi) Is not growth itself the seed of recurring economic problems? Whether a government , an individual or enterprise the quest for more rather than sharing more equitably what there is leads to a self generating defect i.e. boom and bust.

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george megarry

Jul 28, 2012 at 15:06

cigarette tax has hit spains tourist drop taxes and get tourists back,,so easy

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george megarry

Jul 28, 2012 at 15:06

cigarette tax has hit spains tourist drop taxes and get tourists back,,so easy

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george megarry

Jul 28, 2012 at 15:06

cigarette tax has hit spains tourist drop taxes and get tourists back,,so easy

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Jul 28, 2012 at 15:31

(to continue the digression)

Yes we are short of engineers, mathmaticians and doctors. Why not increase the number of places for students in these subjects? (being careful to safeguard entrance standards)

It would not be long before astute parents and fourteen year olds started studying Maths and physics rather than english and history.

Also what about remuneration of these professions. It's no use producing 1st class physicists if they drift to become city traders.

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John Thorley

Jul 28, 2012 at 16:01

Sentiment has probably come across incorrectly, I wasn't thinking of any particular case where I didn't concur with your thoughts, there's been a few, no it was more that I was trying to emphasis just how much I did agree with you here!

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an elder one

Jul 28, 2012 at 16:53

Nicita, scientists and engineers - as employees - are paid by employers in private industry in accordance with their calculations (bearing in mind the profit expectations of their owners) of a realistic wage for producing a marketable thing in the real world of trade with the masses - if we talk of consumer durables in mass production, for instance - when judged fairly, a reasonable condition; of that remuneration 'job satisfaction' is a strong elemental drive for the qualified of that domain. Whence is that derived? it is a matter of enjoying what one does over and above what one perceives as an acceptable salary (seems a strange notion in this day and age; one feels).

One can but feel that the purveyors of finance have corrupted (lawfully, though not always) the field of endeavours in manifold ways, such that potential scientists, et al, feel obliged to join that throng in order to be regarded and to feel themselves successful (if we overlook the element of greed in the equation). Arguably, individuals in finance pay themselves too much (where they are in the position to do so) because they can; it's a simple matter of percentages on large capital figures and the argument in justification that everyone in the same field is doing the same thing.

The same argument applies to sport, especially football, in this overly hedonistic culture of ours. Until we can learn again that in order to buy time to enjoy ourselves we need to work for the means, and that properly works only if everyone puts their best abilities and intelligence into the endeavour for the benefit of the whole populus.

Question is, how to bring it about; tackling 'lawful corruption' would be a start.

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Jul 28, 2012 at 20:17

Yes, very good points oldie,

Does this bring the whole cpaitalist model into question when command economies (including the chinese) can avoid this problem.?You are absolutely right that the traders have corrupted the system. But does their gambling really add value to the commonwealth? The UK and various tax havens may have a short term advantage by being the world's croupier. But this will not last! No barriers to entry to stop others from doing the same.

Best plot is for IMF and UN to get together to ban tax havens and the most maignant sorts of derivatives. Perhaps bonuses need to be stifled by law and a big intiiative to impose a 60% or 80% tax rate on incomes over say £250k.

Of course this is all cloud cookooland while there is still lunatic free enterpise rhetoric coursing through the veins of the americans. Perhaps this is why it will be the Chinese century.

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an elder one

Jul 28, 2012 at 20:54

In continuation, improved education must be the true start, in so many fields of study it seems nowadays the aim it simply to gain some paper qualification, whether it is pertinent to the matter of securing a livelihood or not; unfortunately parents are often the agents for this endeavour - wanting their children to show up in what they regard as a good light. Standards have been progressively lowered in order to satisfy a majority, and from what one reads, rather clutters up the universities with students not fitted to the experience; that mathematics, science and engineering are eschewed by many, for being too difficult; yet true satisfaction only comes from succeeding in the face of difficulty; for most of us that is; one meets occasionally individuals who are simply brilliant and appear not to need to try.

That said, choices are probably more difficult in today's world, information technology and communications have changed so much the nature of an existence; in the days of my youth one considered education as leading to a single job for life, probably no longer true today.

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an elder one

Jul 28, 2012 at 22:28

No, Nicita the profits of gambling do not serve the commonwealth, these just go into veritable black holes I deem, the consequence is a conservative (with a small 'c') classes otherwise finish up paying excessive taxes to serve the notional needs of the commonwealth as judged by the ruling misguided elite at the time. However this this would not matter too much if private industry could be encouraged and enabled to grow the economy, though I daresay the disease would still have its hold through our present associations with the EU and its nonsense the EURO; the lord only knows why our politicos should subscribe to maintaining its miserable existence.

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John Thorley

Jul 28, 2012 at 22:58

Are you two drunk?

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Jul 28, 2012 at 23:35

Not sure if they are JT.

But I wish someone would either direct AEO to the Globe Theatre or invite him to take modern english classes.

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Jul 29, 2012 at 09:45

When we have wonderful engineering companies like Cobham, Halma, Rotork, it is strange that our government and our universities cannot promote the sciences and technology to the best students. Not long ago everyone wanted to be a banker or a lawyer or an accountant because that was where the money was - I remember Douglas Hogg, surely one of our less successful Thatcherites, telling a delegation from the EEF that they were wasting their time as the future of the country was finance not engineering. Time for Cable and his colleagues to change all that.

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an elder one

Jul 29, 2012 at 11:25

JT; probably; what's your excuse? Philmo; modern english, ugh! 'lol' and all those 'cool' things!

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Jul 29, 2012 at 11:41

Hey AEO!

I hate acronyms, and trendiness for its own sake as much as anyone.

I do however appreciate good plain uncluttered English which rapidly gets to the point!

I and many others on the thread have enjoyed the benefit of being brought up in the country of origin of the most powerful language on earth. We should respect and preserve it.

Long live Fowler's "Use of English"!

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an elder one

Jul 29, 2012 at 13:30

Philmo, 'getting to the point' there's the problem; the European problem- including the UK - has been flogged to near death, such that it is a challenge to find any new way to define its condition or suggest remedy.

It is the politicians who truly are unable to come to it, who are the failures. Hopefully for not much longer! when we can have something new to debate.

Until then I promise to shut up!

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an elder one

Jul 29, 2012 at 19:18

A post script though! Philmo, you of course mean 'Fowlers Modern English Usage' and yes I am aware of his opinion regarding the use of false personal pronouns and stylish words. Thanks for the lesson in grammar; I shall keep an eye on you!

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Bloodied but unbowed

Jul 30, 2012 at 11:09

The depth of Spain's problems were clear to see some years ago. The ex-pat press reported on the municipality of Estepona (Andalucia Region, for years a Socialist stronghold).

In one year the local police could not use their police cars because fuel bills had gone unpaid too long.

At the fire station only one of three fire engines operated because they couldn't afford to repair the other two.

At the Town Hall the phones were cut off because the bills were unpaid. In addition Town Hall staff went unpaid for at least 3 months because there was ' money left'

Now where have I heard that phrase before?

Ah, Yes; former Labour Treasury Minister & Champagne Socialist; take a bow Liam Byrne.

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