I read the news about the appointment of Cressida Dick to the top police job in the country with mixed feelings.
I was certainly pleased that her appointments as the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police meant that another part of the “glass ceiling” barring women from top jobs had been smashed. But I immediately remembered where I’d heard her name before. Dick was the senior officer in charge of the police operation in 2005 which led to the fatal shooting by a police officer at a tube station of an entirely innocent man: Jean Charles de Menezes. His only crime was, in today’s words by Owen Jones, to “look like he might be foreign”.
The context of the shooting is important. The atmosphere was febrile, less than 48 hours after the London bombings of 7th July 2005 by Islamist extremists on 3 tube trains and a London bus. 52 people died and over 700 were injured in the attacks. The police were under enormous pressure to find and arrest anyone associated with the four suicide bombers. I’ve always felt an enormous sympathy for the police officers who shot de Menezes at close range, thinking he was a suicide bomber who was about to detonate his bomb on the tube train. These officers had taken enormous personal risk to take down a presumed bomber, only find later they had been told to pursue the wrong man, who had absolutely no connection with the 07/07 attacks.
Those officers have had to live their days since in that awful knowledge. Dick, as the Police Commander in charge had issued the order that the presumed bomber be “detained as soon as possible”. It was widely assumed at the time that, at the very least, Commander Dick’s career would forever be tainted by suspicion. One cannot help but be impressed that her own personal qualities have enabled her to overcome this dreadful incident and rise to the top. From the media coverage, it seems that the two people ultimately responsible for her appointment – Home Secretary Amber Rudd and London Mayor Sadiq Khan – were both convinced she was the best candidate.
De Menezes’ Family
It was no surprise that de Menezes’ family criticised the appointment of Dick yesterday. His cousin expressed “serious concerns” and expressed doubt that Dick could command the confidence of the public in such a high-profile and often controversial role. A sorry part of the aftermath of de Menezes’ shooting was that, on several occasions, the Metropolitan Police, including its most senior officers, treated his family shabbily, to say the least. Yesterday’s news must seem like another enormous kick in the teeth.
Is it too much to hope that some accommodation could be found between the Met and the relatives of Jean Charles de Menezes? During her very busy period preparing for her new job, might it be possible for Commissioner-elect Dick to take time to meet the members of the family – to apologize in person and to hold a frank and private discussion as to what happened on that fateful day? A hand of reconciliation offered to the relatives of an innocent victim of police error would be a good way for the first female “top cop” to begin her role.
Theresa the Appeaser, she was called in parliament. Strong words, with powerful historic resonances – but about right, too. “Events, dear boy, events” said PM Harold Macmillan, when questioned about his likely greatest challenges as Prime Minister.
Well, events she got last week, in quick succession:
Event 1: She undertakes an ill-advised dash across the Atlantic to meet Donald Trump, just seven days after his inauguration and a week of highly controversial and divisive executive orders.
Event 2: She makes an over-hasty offer to Trump of a state visit to the UK this year, an offer never previously made to a US President in his first year of office.
Event 3: journalists capture a photograph of May and Trump holding hands in the White House. Whatever the explanation (and there have been several), it just looks creepy.
Event 4: just hours after May leaves, Trump announces his most reviled executive order banning refugees and travellers from seven mainly Muslim countries. The order is widely condemned by other world leaders, political opponents, civil rights campaigners – and anyone with any concept of basic, civilized values.
(Non-) Event 5: May fails to condemn Trump’s banning order four times on the Andrew Marr show and has failed to offer anything but the weakest of comments since.
The above half-finished post has been delayed for reasons outside my direct control. Since then, May’s government has tried to bury bad news, by sneaking out one announcement under the cover of the Commons Article 50 vote. That was the abandonment of the so-called “Dubs amendment” of giving safe haven to unaccompanied refugee children after only 200 children have been helped, with a final 150 in process. Campaigners had expected around 3000 children a year. “Mean-spirited” is wholly inadequate to describe the decision.
These appalling catalogue of misjudgements presents a picture of a narrow-minded, mean-spirited, introspective government and, by inference, the same for our country. Britain once boasted of “punching above its weight” in international affairs. But that depended in no small part, on the moral standing we held in the world. Well, goodbye to all that.
Let’s face it: May is turning out to be a first-class disaster as Prime Minister. The real tragedy is that there is no realistic scenario in prospect where she could be replaced by anyone who isn’t even worse. With a mentally unstable, narcissistic sociopath – and one who wants to bring down the existing order of international law – as our only friend, Britain now inhabits a very lonely and dangerous place. And one full of shame.
Shame on you, May, for bringing us to this pass. And we all share in our collective shame as a once-proud country. Be very afraid.
It’s less than a week since the US Presidential Inauguration and how does it feel? Metaphors and images come readily to mind, mostly involving cliff edges and falling off them. In the Oval Office, we see daily pictures of the Trump-creature (I can’t bring myself to see him as human) signing executive order after executive order. It’s like all my worst nightmares rolled into one awful horror story. The dominant image is of the USA in freefall.
The American Clifftop
All countries have their national myths: they are part of the glue that binds nations together. A powerful and enduring US myth is of the “shining beacon on the hill”: America as leader of the free world. American setting an example in terms of freedom of speech, equality before the law, peaceful handover of power following a free and fair election. To a considerable degree, all of these things are true. America’s clifftop is all of these things, a moral high ground of sorts. There have been a few landslides and rockfalls, mainly, in recent times, during the Richard Nixon and George W Bush eras. But the cliff is still there, discernible.
At the foot of the cliff, I see horror: a moral cesspit. There appears to be no moral compass to any of Trump’s decisions. All you see is personal self-interest, projected into a twisted notion of national self-interest. And right now, I see a country just starting its freefall from the moral clifftop to the cesspit. Most Americans don’t seem to appreciate the degree of resentment and hatred there is around the world against the USA. 9/11 was a sharp reminder of the most extreme example of such hatred. It may take months, it may take years, but the collapse in the US’s moral standing will have consequences, sooner or later.
The British Clifftop
At the risk of trying to stretch the “falling off a cliff” analogy too far, Britain has two clifftops to consider, one economic and one of social policy and ethics. We haven’t jumped off the economic cliff yet: we’re still arguing over the size of the cliff and what’s at the bottom. So far, Theresa May’s comments suggest see sees quite a high cliff and a hard landing. But all this will be the subject of acrimonious debate over the next two years.
We’ve already jumped off the ethical cliff by the referendum result last June. Despite the other EU members granting the UK a number of concessions and opt-out deals over the years, a small majority of voters still said we’d had enough and to hell with the lot of them. I must have been naïve to think that we British now considered ourselves quite European in our outlook on the main social issues. But we’ve always been the most Atlanticist in our values, and that’s got nothing to do with our geographical position. Our moral standing in the EU and the rest of the world has taken a great fall, except perhaps in the eyes of a sociopath like Donald J Trump.
May’s Visit to Trump
Which brings us to Theresa May’s impending visit to Washington. I squirmed with embarrassment and disgust when I read published extracts from a speech May plans to deliver to a Republican gathering today. It contains the usual British delusion of the “special relationship”: nothing new there. But, worryingly, she also speaks of “shared values” and “common interests”. I hope May’s shared values don’t include support for torture, undermining NATO and the UN and disdain for basic women’s rights such as abortion. There’s not too much evidence of common interests, on free trade in particular.
As to a bilateral trade agreement, Trump’s idea of a deal is one in which he wins hands down and his “opponent” is crushed and humiliated. And one of Trump’s sidekicks spoke of the meeting for the UK in its “time of need”. The new US administration clearly sees us as subservient, a supplicant. That’s another reason why it is stupid for Britain the leave the relative protection of the EU.
May also spoke of the opportunity for the USA and UK to “lead together, again”. To lead where, exactly? It would scare me witless to think of May leading the UK in any direction that Trump wanted to go.
I spoke at the beginning about the USA being in moral freefall. If May is planning to try to hold Trump’s hand, metaphorically speaking, as he drags his country down, we’re truly in for a Plummet Meeting.
Only people well above retirement age will remember a gentle 1950s TV panel game called What’s My Line? Panellists would try to guess a person’s line of work from a mime and answers to ten “yes” or ”no” questions. Right now, Theresa May doesn’t seem to know what her job is. She spent too long as Home Secretary and still hasn’t woken up to her apparent promotion.
The Home Office
It’s been a truism of British politics that the job of being Home Secretary breaks politicians. In the last 25 years we have had 11 jobholders in that post. That’s an average duration of 2 years and 3 months. Theresa May stuck it out for 6 years (with Michael Howard and Jack Straw next, at 4 years apiece). That speaks to me volumes about May’s politics and outlook on society.
For a long time, I’ve believed that the Home Office is the most illiberal, dysfunctional of all the government departments. Even more this is true of its bastard offspring, the UK Border Agency, where asylum-seekers and would-be citizens have to navigate a nightmarish, Kafkaesque system to gain residency and citizenship rights. Anyone who has had any dealings with the system knows that the tabloid portrayal of Britain as an “easy touch” for immigrants is a gross, downright lie.
May is, I believe, a rather small-minded person with a strong authoritarian streak. I detect no real sense of empathy or genuine humanity – just like I view the Home Office. No wonder she lasted so long there. During this time, Prime Minister Cameron often repeated that Government policy was to reduce net migration into the UK to “tens of thousands”. This policy was absurd, as achievement was outside his control.
Possibly bruised by her experience of repeatedly failing to meet Cameron’s daft immigration “target”, May appears to be over-obsessed about immigration. May has swallowed whole the argument, put forward by UKIP, her Europhobic flank and the rabid tabloids, that the referendum result implies reducing immigration is a top priority in the EU negotiations. There is no sound reason to draw this conclusion.
Motives for Voting “Leave”
Let’s unpick this assumption a bit. The referendum produced a binary result to the question whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU. It stands to reason that voters on both sides would have had a variety of reasons in mind when voting. I’m unaware of any convincing research as to what those reasons actually were. Let’s try to list those of the “leave” voters, in roughly ascending order of merit:
Bigotry: racism and xenophobia: sadly, there is still a minority of people who fit this category. They are implacably opposed to the EU and all its works and their opinions are fixed firmly. A few of these are those responsible for the rise in hate crimes since the referendum. Clearly, all people with such a reason would wish to see a drop (to zero, presumably) in immigration.
Credulity: the referendum saw politicians in the leave camp at their most mendacious: I have never known so many blatant lies. This followed 40-plus years of lies, distortions and propaganda from sections of the media (you know who). I have to keep reminding myself that many – most? – people do not take the degree of interest in politics that I do. Such people may be more willing to accept these lies as the truth. A difficult-to-quantify proportion of these will agree that immigration should be reduced.
Post-imperial hubris and delusion: Likely to be skewed towards older voters, there are many Brits who continue to live in the shadow of our airbrushed imperial past. They hold instinctive views that we can relive our former imperial glory and be better off going it alone. Probably a majority holding these views would wish to reduce immigration, since, obviously, the British are better at doing things than Johnny Foreigner – despite vast evidence to the contrary.
Resistance to change: I would guess there’s a far greater number of “leave” voters in this category. Too-speedy change to the composition of a community can be disconcerting and a proportion of people will be opposed. It’s likely a significant proportion of this group would want reduced immigration. Some may not: they may see the economic and key skills benefits of migrants, as long as there are not too many in their back yards.
Desperation to be heard and for a change from the status quo: Much has been heard about this group and their vulnerability to populist siren voices. There’s a partial overlap with “credulity” in that they’re likely to have allowed their anger about “elites” to be diverted away from those people and policies responsible (bankers / free market fundamentalism) to the “faceless bureaucrats” in Brussels instead. There’s no obvious way of guessing the importance they attach to immigration as part of the problem.
Socialist dreamers: There is an honourable reason to want Britain to leave the EU, exemplified by the late Tony Benn. This is that the EU has been “captured” in ideology by the free market fundamentalists. Britain would be better going it alone with a (presumably Labour) Government introducing legislation which restores the balance of rights to employees and poorer members of society. Control of immigration hardly enters this line of reasoning. Attractive as this idea may be, I suspect this isn’t going to happen any time soon. The greater danger was spelled out by Phillip Hammond threatening to turn the UK into a tax haven with even fewer rights for workers and the poor and a further erosion of our tax base.
Of course, an individual voter may have weighed up several of these factors and some have clear overlaps. But there’s nothing to suggest that immigration is the top concern of Leave voters. When you add in the 48% who voted Remain, the argument for prioritising immigration over the economy – or anything else – falls away entirely.
Read the Job Description!
For me, this all leads to a straightforward conclusion. May was in her comfort zone as Home Secretary. By definition, her brief as Prime Minister is much wider. Viewing the EU negotiations from the perspective of her previous job has led to a grievous consequence. She has, without perhaps realising it, surrendered to the view of the most nauseating and bigoted of the extreme Europhobes in her own party and to the even more nauseating populist slimebags in UKIP.
In short, Theresa May clearly falls a long way short of the Job Description for the job as Prime Minister of the UK. As predicted, she has now lost the Supreme Court appeal – at great expense and waste of time. Let’s hope that members of parliament will help her to understand she is not some medieval monarch, but the Prime Minister of a 21st century democracy.
The scene: President’s Inaugural Ball, Washington DC, 20 January 2017. The new US president and first lady take to the dance floor.
And now, the end is near
And so you face the final curtain
The world, it stands in fear
The civilized: well they’re just hurtin’
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I bullied all, in a tough-guy way
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
Regret’s not what I do
My past mistakes, I’ll never mention
Regret is just for you and those I screw without attention*
I lurched from boom to bust, from bust to boom, a do-or-die** way
It’s mostly luck, don’t give a fuck, I did it my way
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I would grope and I would screw
But through it all, when there was doubt
I shut them up and spat them out
To ease my itch, just grab a bitch and do it my way
I’ve loved; myself of course
It’s what you call self-adulation
And now that I’m in charge, I’m gonna fuck up every nation
I’ll build a wall, and that’s not all
The world will glow, that’s in a fry way
If I feel heat, another tweet, I’ll do it my way
America, I’ll make it great
I’ll show you all just how to hate
The weak, the poor, and millions more
If I feel sore, I’ll start a war
To darkest times – at least *that rhymes!
I said “unite”, that all was shite, just do it my way.
The world watches on anxiously as the Americans are about to embark on a highly dangerous experiment. They are about to hand over the keys of the White House to a “grotesque man-baby*”. With the keys come the world’s largest economy and by far the world’s largest military operation and the codes to a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. It feels like the onward progress of humankind, the “march of civilization” has been thrown into a terrifying reverse.
(*thank you to Polly Toynbee for this memorable, and chillingly accurate, turn of phrase.)
What do we mean by civilization? My dictionary defines it as follows: “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. This is fine as far as it goes, but begs the question about the word “advanced”. I think it is easier to spot which societies are civilized and which are not, rather than come up with a precise definition. But bound up in the idea is the sense of advancement, of moving forward, of progress. My own world view is strongly bound up in this notion of advancement: the “march of civilization”, if you like. As we learn and discover more, as we spread our knowledge and improve our skills in education, we become more “civilized”.
At the 1908 London Olympics, the gold medallist in the men’s high jump cleared 1.90m. The current Olympic record is 2.39m (world record 2.45m). Better training, fitness and innovative techniques have literally “raised the bar”. So it is with civilization.
It’s generally accepted by historians that civilizations arose independently in several parts of the world: the Middle East, Asia, China and Meso- and South America. The earliest were in Mesopotamia (roughly modern Iraq and parts of neighbouring countries), the east coast of the Mediterranean and in Egypt, beginning around 3500BCE. And of course, classical Greece is seen as the foundation for Western democratic civilization.
If we were transported back in time, clearly we would be shocked by many aspects of what we would see. None of these early “civilizations” would feel “civilized” to a 21st century western eye. Slavery, random acts of violence, arbitrary rule with little or no concept of equality before the law would be just for starters. A total lack of status for women, early death from violence or disease and near-100% illiteracy would be commonplace, too. What we call “civilized” today has been a long time in the making. Like the high jump, successive generations have raised the bar when it comes to defining civilization.
To the Rear, March
No one is naïve enough to believe that progress has been smooth and steady. To give a random example, the good intentions of the French Revolution were followed by a bloodbath before some new order prevailed. Nevertheless, in the longer term, progress has been in a forward direction.
But two key events in 2016 have given the onward march a violent kick backwards. In June, the Brits stuck two fingers up at our closest neighbours – closest geographically and culturally. And in November, the Americans voted a grotesque caricature of a human being as their next president.
We all presumably carry some kind of mental checklist around in our heads about what it takes for a country to be civilized. For many a year, I’ve said that the USA doesn’t meet my criteria, for two – or three – reasons. The two, either of which alone would, for me, disqualify it, are:
The US still commits judicial murder on its own citizens (i.e. capital punishment);
It has no comprehensive healthcare system (despite Obama’s attempts) to look after all its citizens when they fall ill, regardless of their ability to pay.
The third, which comes close to the previous two, is the lack of state control on gun ownership, a basic failure of a duty of care for its citizens.
But the United States is about to get a whole lot further from my definition of a civilized nation. Sunday’s Observer doesn’t mince words: “His [i.e. Trump’s] often-demonstrated ignorance, racial bigotry, misogyny, untruthfulness, hostility to free speech, crude bullying and dangerous, rabble-rousing nationalism utterly disqualify him. […]Even if all Trump’s numerous inadequacies and sordid personal baggage were set to one side, his egregious lack of coherent, fact-based, rational and cooperative policy platforms, especially internationally, is potentially disastrous.” Quite.
Assuming we all survive the next four years, there will be some backlash to all this, sooner or later. I have to believe the march of civilization will move forward again one day. Whether that’s in my lifetime, right now, I’m not so sure…
The Red Cross, not known for exaggeration, calls it a “humanitarian crisis”. The “it” is, of course, the state of the NHS and its A&E services in particular, as winter takes its toll. Three times as many NHS trusts are in deficit as a year earlier, key targets such as waiting times are being missed on a spectacular scale.
The NHS remains one of Britain’s most cherished institutions. And yet, it seems that significant numbers of the electorate are very slow learners: The Tories can’t be trusted with the NHS!!
On the Cheap
Britain has been getting its healthcare on the cheap for a long time, compared with similar countries. The graph below compares spend on healthcare (as a percentage of national income: GDP) of around 30 countries:
It can be seen that most of our comparable countries in the developed world spend more than the UK – the USA spectacularly so. The obvious consequence of this is that the NHS is less well-resourced than its main European neighbours (but not the USA! – see below).
The degree of goodwill shown by NHS staff in maintaining the system becomes apparent when you see the relatively thin provision of key staff: doctors shown above and nurses below. (NB: no / incomplete nurses data for the Netherlands and Italy.)
But perhaps the most shocking of all is Britain’s incredibly low provision of hospital beds: see below. When you add in the “bed blocking” caused by draconian cuts in social services budgets over the past few years, it’s easy to see why “running out of hospital beds” is a daily news item. It’s not just the cold weather and feckless patients, it’s the result of government policy.
The US Confidence Trick
It’s perhaps worth pointing out something else that jumps out of these graphs. That’s the spectacularly poor performance of the USA healthcare system. Despite the eye-wateringly high spend, Americans get very little for their money – as the graphs above show in terms of doctors, nurses and hospital beds. US life expectancy is lower than the UK and EU average, its infant and post-natal mortality rates are practically third world standard. A stark warning is the fact that a significant faction of the Conservative party wants to undermine and destroy the NHS to bring in something more like the US system. Clearly, the Americans are being conned big-time. Their dollars must go to the fat profits and the spending on major lobbying and propaganda campaigns of the private US healthcare companies. You have been warned.
Recent Healthcare History
All the above information shows how Britain compares to similar countries, using the most recent data available to the OECD. A historical perspective of trends in healthcare spending in the UK is also instructive, as the graph below demonstrates. Background colours on the graph represent Labour (pink), Tory (blue) and Tory / Lib Dem coalition (green) governments.
From the 1950s through to the mid-1970s, both Labour and Conservative governments followed similar policies in terms of funding the NHS. Spending rose slowly in line with longer life expectancy and a wider range of treatments available. The period of decline in the late 1970s can be attributed to shock to the economy of the oil crisis and the five-fold increase in the price of oil. The jump up in the graph in 1980, shortly after Thatcher won the election, is not due to an increase in spending on the NHS. Rather, it is due to the sharp drop in GDP; Thatcher’s monetarism experiment resulted in a sharp recession, wiping out much of British manufacturing industry and the steady jobs with them – never to return.
Spending was stagnant through the 18 years of Tory government, mostly falling slowly under Thatcher with a slight compensatory rise under John Major. When Tony Blair won the 1997 election, spending was under 6% of GDP, whilst average spending in the rest of the EU had steadily risen to over 8%. Blair pledged to bring NHS spending up to the level of the EU average: a 25%-plus increase overall. The graph clearly shows a rise to nearly 8% by the 2010 election, but the EU average by then was approaching 11%.
Under the 2010-15 coalition, spending was stagnant, despite the continuing increase in demand due to increasing longevity and new, expensive treatments. The graph shows the forecast decline for the Tory years to 2020. This forecast is made by the respected, expert medical charity The King’s Fund, based upon stated government policy announcements. No wonder that Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on Monday that Theresa May’s assertion that the NHS was getting all the funding it wanted “stretches it” – “it” being the truth. That’s polite speak for pointing out she’s a liar.
Tory Private Healthcare Links
The figures above speak for themselves: Tory governments since the 1980s tend to underfund the NHS. The institution is still much loved by the UK public whereas, to some implacable free market Tories, it acts as an inconvenient contradiction to the “truth” that private provision is always better than public. Add to that the many Tory MPs with vested interests in private healthcare providers: see this 2014 Daily Mirror article, for example. (It’s interesting – and disturbing – to note that many people in the Mirror’s article have now moved to government posts closer to healthcare and cabinet posts since the article was written.)
Which brings us full circle to my original point: how much more evidence do people need that the Tories cannot be trusted with the NHS?
Serious attempts are being made to formulate some kind of non-partisan, consensus policy-making to secure long-term funding for healthcare in this country. Indications so far are that May and company are resisting this: she appears always to want to have her own way and dismisses, rather than listens to, dissenting voices. Failing that, we will need some organised, grassroots political movement to get the Tories out of office before they destroy the NHS completely. The fightback must begin – soon.
Well, here we are in 2017, in the worst mess politically in my lifetime. Hatred, xenophobia and bigotry on the rise again, the highest levels of inequality for a century and the prospects of matters getting even worse. It’s worth tracing how we got to this position – and I want to explain the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the thinking of those who got us here.
Starting with Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead in 1943, the economic theory which I call Free Market Fundamentalism slowly began to form. Rand’s 1957 work Atlas Shrugged further developed the idea of the “morality of rational self-interest”. The intellectual baton passed to economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, first at the LSE then at the University of Chicago. Hayek won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1974 for work on the theory of money. (One ironic moment in the story was 30 years earlier, when Hayek was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, nominated by his intellectual arch-rival, John Maynard Keynes.)
13 years Hayek’s junior, Milton Friedman was also at Chicago between 1946 and 1977. The “Chicago school” developed further the ideas which were to form the basis of FMF.
Implementation: Thatcher and beyond
Hayek and Friedman acted as advisers to various right-wing politicians in the USA and elsewhere, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. A key moment came in 1975, shortly after Margaret Thatcher had become leader of the Conservative Party. At a Tory policy conference, Thatcher produced a copy of Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, stating “This is what we believe”. Reagan in the USA stated he was much influenced by Hayek. Thatcher and Reagan both appointed ardent Hayek followers to key government posts in their respective governments.
But the first to put Hayekian ideas into practice was Chilean dictator Augosto Pinochet. In 1975, when he wasn’t busy “disappearing” his political opponents, Pinochet implemented free-market reforms which rescued Chile’s economy from some of its ills, at the expense of rapidly rising inequality and poverty. Thatcher and Pinochet remained friends until the latter’s death in 2006. Thatcher lobbied for his release from house arrest in 1999 where he was held pending a request for extradition for alleged human rights abuses.
One defining strand of FMF thought in the early 1980s was monetarism. There was much talk of the “velocity of circulation” of money and much debate as to what actually counted as money. The resulting policy implementation led to two devastating recessions, in 1980 and 1984, which saw off much of British manufacturing industry, never to return.
As virtually all of the economic growth was hoovered up by the richest 1% of the population, money flowed secretly into the coffers of various right-wing “think tanks”. Hayek himself had been instrumental in the founding of one of these notorious bodies: the Institute of Economic Affairs. Another think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, was co-founded by Keith Joseph, Thatcher’s Secretary of State and propagated Hayekian ideas. A third, Policy Exchange, co-founded in 2002 by Tory ex-Ministers Michael Gove and Francis Maude, pursues the same propaganda war. Common features of these organisations are their bland, neutral-sounding names, their extreme right-wing agenda and the lack of transparency in their funding sources. More information can be found at the Transparify and WhoFundsYou websites and my earlier blog post Think Tanks? More Like the Thought Police!
A key problem for the proponents of Free Market Fundamentalism is when rigorous pursuit of their policies for over 30 years fails to deliver us all to the promised land. Thorns in their side are those intellectuals and independent-minded people who point out the failure of this policy – most spectacularly in the 2007-8 economic crash, but also in low economic growth, massive tax avoidance, chronic underfunding of public services and rampant rises in inequality and poverty. For Chilean dictator Pinochet, the solution was simple: lock up and kill your political opponents.
But in liberal democracies such as the UK and USA, a more subtle approach is needed. For right-wing politicians, this has mainly taken the form of the consistent application of propaganda (i.e. lies) to deflect criticism away from their policies which have caused the problems. The best two examples of this since 2010 in the UK are the vilification of the poor (including highly misleading distortions about benefit fraud) and putting the blame for the 2008 global recession on the then Labour Government.
Such propaganda has been highly successful and has led to a distinct rise in intolerance and hatred. But the politicians have been helped enormously by their friends in the media, traditional and digital, aided and abetted by those shady think tanks. In his excellent 2014 book The Establishment: and How They Got Away With It, Owen Jones calls these groups and individuals the “outriders” of the system. For reasons of electability, the politicians have to choose their words carefully and not be too brazen about their lying. (At least, that was true until last year’s EU referendum campaign, by far the low point in UK politics in my lifetime.) No such scruples apply to the outliers. The think tanks, Fox News, the Sun, Mail and Express in the traditional media and the likes of Breitbart and worse in the new media pump out a vision of a parallel universe in which truth is an inconvenience to be swept aside with contempt and fury.
Populism and post-truth society
Add to all this the social media and search engines: Facebook, Twitter, Google and so on. Their algorithmic, profit-maximising approach to presenting information on the web, together with a proliferation of false news propaganda websites, can promote lies to the top of the list above those websites, often less melodramatic in tone, aiming to tell the truth. Instead of reasoned debate between people with different views, discourse has now split into two distinct strands. Firstly, people seek out those sources of information which share their views and people spend much of their time in bubbles of the like-minded. The second form of discourse is hysterical ranting, often limited to Twitter-length soundbites of people abusing and threatening each other.
Throw in the denigration of “experts” and you arrive at the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of 2016: post-truth.
This now brings us up against the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the post-truth project.
The early intellectual founders of Free Market Fundamentalism appealed, above all, to the rationality of humankind. A key aspect of 1980s monetarism was known as “rational expectations”. Rand, Hayek et al built fabulously complex and, on the face of it, intellectually appealing sets of arguments to support their cause. These towering achievements of intellect remind me of theodicies: increasingly sophisticated arguments purporting to show how the existence of evil in the world can be compatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good deity.
As I’ve said before, the whole of the free market fundamentalist project rests on two prior assumptions, both false, which are never properly spelled out. These are (a) the pursuit of material self-interest is our only motive in making decisions and (b) such decisions are always entirely rational. (Click the link at the start of this paragraph to see my reasoning.) The “clever” people, Rand, Hayek et al, forgot what it is that makes us human.
As critics are increasingly questioning the economic orthodoxy, its true believers have switched tactics, by appealing instead to human emotions, above all anger and fear. Watching the way Trump stirred up the mob during his pre-election rallies surely brings into mind some sub-Nuremberg chilling of the spine. For the “project” to continue, the “people” must forget all this rational discourse and simply shout and scream at the defined enemy (the poor, immigrants, racial and sexual minorities, or whosoever is selected, 1984-style).
And so a project reliant for its existence on rationality now has to destroy it to survive!
It’s still very early days, but there are signs of a fightback. Economists are rapidly rethinking their ideas. The political left and centre-left are talking about ideas for “progressive alliances”. Various groups and individuals are beginning to agree on one thing. We will not let the mob, exemplified by the more rabid “Brexiteers” and by the “Trumpsters” go unchallenged.
My take on the contradiction is unspectacular. Societies work best when the rational and emotional sides of human nature are reflected in balanced policies and political programmes. We used to call it social democracy. A re-fit for the 21st century is sorely needed. The decent people need to organise and rescue post-truth society from its own follies and contradictions.
It became something of a standing joke in our household. Whenever something went wrong, I would say “I blame Margaret Thatcher”. The joke has long since worn thin: I get a withering look if I still use it. And yet, in some important ways, I do still blame Thatcher. Let me explain.
All human beings (or at least the psychologically healthy ones) have a mix of selfishness and compassion for others. (One of my earliest posts, Being Human II: The Four Cs, goes into more detail.) But there’s clear evidence that the balance varies from person to person. But the problem is that the economic theory which has dictated government policy globally since the early 1980s does not recognise this.
Triumph of Greed
The rise of the new economic orthodoxy began in earnest under Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. Even though the main development in the thinking was in America, (and specifically the University of Chicago) I would argue that Thatcher was the true champion of the new thinking. Reagan, the “Great Communicator”, never appeared to have the intellectual capacity to understand the significance of these ideas and went along with Thatcher. He would presumably have been comfortable with the Orwellian “private sector good, public sector bad” bit of the new creed.
My post Two Castles (part 2), published 12 months ago, explains the two falsehoods upon which our entire economic order since the 1980s has been based. Briefly:
Falsehood 1: material self-interest is the only motive driving human behaviour when making economically-significant decisions.
Falsehood 2: people behave rationally when making such decisions.
Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang provides excellent rebuttals in his excellent 2010 book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. In his “Thing 5”, he lists several alternative motives to that in Falsehood 1: honesty, self-respect, altruism, love, sympathy, faith, sense of duty, solidarity, loyalty, public-spiritedness, patriotism. (Doesn’t that sound more like real human beings?) His “Thing 16” goes into great detail about all the reasons people cannot have access to all the information in most of the decisions they make, in order for them to be rational.
Thatcher didn’t question the tenets of free market fundamentalism. Its prescriptions: free markets, small government, low taxes, fitted with her prior world view. But those tenets got boiled down into “Greed is Good” and a whole load of evils have flowed ever since.
The Rise of Finance
Deregulation of the City of London in 1986 led to the enormous growth in scale, reach and innovation of financial services. The new financial “products” (a daft term, if ever there was one) were practically all socially useless or downright harmful. Instead of providing steady, patient funding to allow promising new companies and industries to grow, City money was pumped into financial speculation (“gambling with other people’s money”) and property bubbles. This has had the effect of putting London houses out of reach of people with “ordinary” jobs and facilitated a massive money-laundering racket of the world’s worst fraudsters and racketeers. The UK’s appalling productivity record is one consequence of this.
The City was the first sector of the UK economy to really pick up on “Greed is Good” and led the way in pursuing policies which led to the short-term profit of the companies and individuals involved, regardless of the wider economic consequences. Insurance companies were first to pick up on the idea of a “loyalty penalty”, using their existing customer base as a cash cow for exploitation, punishing those too “lazy” to switch suppliers on every annual renewal. The privatised utilities, operating in a false market that was not really competitive, made money by exploiting the same tactic and making tariffs too complicated for customers to make comparisons with competitors. Policy capture is now so complete that government policy is now to “force” customers to shop around rather than tackle the predatory behaviour of the suppliers – even to the point of encouraging more junk calls from competitors.
Destruction of Manufacturing
The UK now has the lowest proportion of its economy in manufacturing of the major developed countries: 11% against 15% for the EU as whole and 12% for the USA. From Thatcher onward, government economic policy was biased towards the interests of the City. Broadly speaking, what’s good for finance is bad for everyone else: financial services, unlike the “real” economy, lead to a zero sum game. So the rise in finance damaged manufacturing. But Thatcher also hated any competing source of political power: specifically, in this case, the trade unions. In her desire to smash the unions, swathes of manufacturing capacity were also lost. Once the jobs are gone, so too do the expertise and the machine tools. Then there follows the decay and demolition of the factories themselves. So easy to destroy, so hard to rebuild.
Job Insecurity and the Gig Economy
With the significant reduction in Trade Union membership and a succession of anti-union legislation, some inevitable changes happened. Standards of protection of workers’ rights have fallen. This in turn has led to the rise in poorly paid, insecure jobs and zero-hours contracts: the “gig” economy. The “Greed is Good” mantra has been taken on board in a big way by CEOs and top managers. Pay rises for those at the top have well outstripped inflation; lower paid workers have seen stagnant real pay. Income and wealth inequality are back to levels last seen in 1914.
Nationalist Populism and the Rise of the Extreme Right
Politicians in the UK and elsewhere – particularly in France, the Netherlands and the USA – have taken up the “Greed is Good” theme. Blame for the bad economic deal for the many has been successfully deflected away from those responsible to others: the poor, disabled and immigrants. The EU referendum and US presidential election results are the culmination – so far – of this trend. I fear worse to come in France next spring.
These “victories” seem to have stirred up some of the nastiest individuals – racists, bigots, homophobes, Islamophobes – and to have spurred on their cheerleaders in the press, TV and online. The screaming, emotional, irrational hysteria of the Mail, Express, Sun, Breitbart, Fox News and their ilk drown out calmer, more rational voices.
And I think there is a direct line of causation between all this, via Bush Jr’s military adventurism (with Blair as poodle), Osborne and Duncan Smith’s misrepresentations about benefit fraud, Johnson’s lies about the EU, Farage’s …well, everything… and the tone and direction set by Thatcher in the early 1980s. As Chang says in his book: “Assume the worst about people and you get the worst”.
The good news is that the people as a whole still have much more generous a spirit than is reflected by their governments’ policies. A recent survey by CAF shows the USA as having the second most generous people in the world (after Myanmar) with the UK coming eighth: the highest in Europe. The decent people just have to get a voice and get organised. It’s high time we started to push humanity back from the brink. Damn the legacy of Thatcher and keep the faith in human nature!
Regular readers of this blog will have worked out by now that I’m essentially a rationalist. I approach the world using logic and reason, checking of facts (as far as it’s practicable), updating my views in the light of new information. I’ve no time for superstition, religious or otherwise, in forming my views of the world around me. Or so I say.
So, just for a change, let’s put that all to one side for the moment. Let’s talk about magic. Or, more specifically, magic numbers, and one magic number in particular.
Magic Numbers in History
Over the whole of recorded history, and probably before, numbers have held mystical powers for people. The most mystical number to the Pythagoreans was the number 10. Pythagoras (580 – 500 BCE) himself thought numbers had souls and magic powers.
The most magical numbers in religion are three, four, seven, ten and twelve.
In Christianity, we have the Holy Trinity, Jesus rising after three days, the latter borrowed from pagan moon-worshippers. (Have you ever wondered why Easter wanders all over the calendar: the phases of the moon are the answer.) We have four Gospels and four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The creation myth (also in Islam and Judaism) famously uses the number seven: hence the days of the week. Then we have the Ten Commandments and Twelve Apostles.
The hajj in Islam requires pilgrims to walk seven times around the Kabaa (a pre-existing pagan ritual adopted by early Muslims). And there are many examples in other faiths. In fairy tales, we have three wishes and seven dwarves, to name just a couple of examples. An interesting overview is available on the Mystical Numbers website.
But I want to concentrate on a different number from all these. There’s a spoiler alert already in the title: it’s the number thirty seven.
2010 General Election
Most people know by now that, in 2010, David Cameron won a small majority of 12 in the Commons on 37% of the votes cast. Ever since the 1950s, winning parties in UK general elections have never commanded more than 50% of the vote. I think the lowest figure for majority rule was by Tony Blair’s New Labour in 2005. An attempt at a fairer electoral system, a favourite of the Lib Dems was, of course, scuppered by Cameron and co during the coalition government 2010-15.
The magic number 37 crops up again in the EU referendum result. This can be summarized as follows:
Did not vote
One of the key requirements of government in a democracy is to defend minorities from “the tyranny of the majority”. May’s government seems to be doing a piss poor job of this right now, against the hysteria of the usual media suspects in particular.
As my earlier blog post Two Gamblers and a Pint of Lager explained, our magic number makes its appearance in one stark view of how lopsided the UK economy is. In round terms, the UK has:
of the world’s population
of the world’s income
of the world’s financial transactions.
Financial institutions around the world trade sums equal to the entire global annual output every 14 working days. In the UK, we trade our annual output every day and a quarter! I explained in my post The City: Paragon or Parasite? that this kind of trading is “socially useless”. (The then chairman of the Financial Services Authority used this phrase in 2009.) It’s a major source of financial instability and will inevitably lead to another large 2007-8 style crash one day. It leaves the UK uniquely vulnerable of the western democracies to an economic shock such as Britain leaving the EU or Donald Trump as President of the USA.
Talking of which, I did analyse the US election result to see if our magic number 37 dropped out of the voting statistics. Sadly, it didn’t. But I did learn that the voters of America split as follows:
did not vote
voted for Clinton
voted for Trump
voted for other candidates
Hillary Clinton leads Trump by 2 million votes in the count. In the whole history of US presidential elections, five winning US Presidents have lost the popular vote, Trump by the third largest margin ever. (There were larger margins in 1824 and 1876.) Perhaps more shocking is that fact that Trump is not unusual in becoming President-elect with the endorsement of only about a quarter of voters.
So, no 37 here. But hang on… the share of the American voters who did not vote for Trump is (almost) exactly double the share of British voters (37%) who voted to leave the EU. Or, if you add the percentage of the UKIP vote in 2015 (10) to the percentage of Americans who supported Trump in 2016 (27), you get, yes, (hurrah!) our magic number 37. Phew!
OK, the more observant of you (which is, of course, all of you!) will have spotted what I’ve just done here. I’ve scratched around and selected some arbitrary “facts” from a greater whole until I’ve got the answer I want.* Which is basically what evangelical religious apologists do when they’re trying to “prove” the will of God or Allah behind some natural phenomenon. Tsunamis, for example, being God’s wrath – that sort of thing.
But here’s just one thing more I’ve remembered. What’s the body temperature of a normal, healthy human being? Why, yes! It’s 37 degrees! Spooky, or what? (What, probably…)
*and mixed “percentage of votes” with “percentage of electorate”.