Britain has been in decline for 140 years. By this, I mean that it has been in relative economic decline: relative, that is, to its main rivals and to the overall global economy. The graph below shows Britain (in green) and other countries’ position since 1870, as a percentage of total global income (GDP). The UK had 9% of all global income in 1870, at the height of the British Empire. Today, this has fallen to under 2.4%. The green line shows a remorseless slide downwards.
The last 20 years or so shows that Britain shares this downward trend with the other countries shown. The main reason is the recent rise in the economies of China above all and, to a lesser degree, India, Brazil and Russia.
I have previously reported that the UK slipped from 5th to 6th largest economy on the day after the EU referendum. This was the result of the instant drop in the value of sterling. Last week, the Bank of England took action to boost growth by cutting interest rates to the lowest level ever seen. Other measures were announced, including more “quantitative easing” (a.k.a. printing money), to try to stave off a new recession.
At the same time, the Bank of England revised its forecast of growth of the UK economy. For next year, the downward revision from 2.3% growth to only 0.8% marks the greatest ever downward revision by the Bank in its history. A further smaller downward drop was made to the growth forecast for the following year. This will make our national income £45 billion lower in 2018 than expected pre-referendum. Once again, our £7bn cost of EU membership looks a real bargain.
Former Chancellor George Osborne has a fetish: it’s called austerity. On taking office in 2010, he tipped the UK back into recession by a combination of poor policy and some foolish talk. Of the latter, his false assertion that the UK economy was like Greece’s was perhaps the most foolish. George has been sacked, but he may yet have helped to make his remarks come true – one day. Under his watch, UK productivity growth has been zero. Our relative position is the worst ever. Our productivity is now 18 percentage points below the average for the world’s major economies (G7). That alone is a strong indicator that Britain will continue to lag behind in economic growth.
The new chancellor seems to be taking his time to learn his brief. The lack of action from him contrasts with the more decisive actions from Carney and the Bank. Expert opinion is that both sets of action are needed. Even that will probably not be enough to repair the damage cause by the referendum result.
Added to all this is Britain’s lopsided economy, with its over-reliance on financial services. With the failed free market fundamentalism still dominant in the UK and at the ECB, Britain is uniquely vulnerable. A characteristic of FMF policies is the increasing likelihood, over time, of bigger and bigger economic crashes of the type last seen in 2007-8. Remember the figures: 1%, 2.5%, 37% from my earlier post Two Gamblers and a Pint of Lager. With 1% of global population and 2.5% of global income, the UK engages in 37% of the world’s speculative financial transactions. These are the kind that are most destructive to the “real” economy, according to the IMF. When the next big crash comes, we’ll be hit hardest.
So, in this context, the referendum result looks to me like the firing shot in the final phase of Britain’s long fall from imperial glory (or hubris): our terminal decline to rancour, intolerance, introspection and global irrelevance. Welcome to the future of Britain!
I was born on a street whose name begins with the letter K. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever asked me “Are you proud to have been born on a street beginning with K?” I guess that everyone would agree that the question makes no sense. I had absolutely no control over the matter and it took no effort, skill or talent on my part to be born there.
There have, however, been several occasions when people have said “Are you proud to be British?” Or, sometimes, if I had been criticising some aspect of life in this country, “Aren’t you proud to be British?” I’ve always contended that these questions make as much sense as the K-street version, for the same reasons given above.
It’s pretty obvious that some form of tribalism is an evolved characteristic of human development. Whether it’s allegiance to a football team, factionalism in corporate politics, inter-gang rivalry or whatever, our instincts to want to belong to a group are strong. Nation states have been pretty effective in harnessing these instincts by instilling some form of patriotism in its citizens. I’ve always been very wary of patriotism, seeing how too often it has been commandeered into something darker, more sinister.
Depending on the context, we all carry around with us some multi-faceted idea of who we are. At different times, we see ourselves primarily in different roles: proud parent, West Ham (or Aston Villa) supporter, board member, oppressed minority member, flag-waving patriot, trade unionist and countless more. Identity and single-cause political movements have risen at the expense of traditional parties. I’m always heartened (and a little jealous) when people from minority ethnic backgrounds flex their self-identity viewpoint to the context of a discussion. Multi-lingualism can also offer a richness of perspectives from which to consider a topic under debate.
In the dimension of nationality, I’ve always claimed that I take a hierarchical approach. First and foremost, I see myself as a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens. I’m interested in those matters that unite us all and in celebrating the richness that comes from cultural diversity. Next, culturally and ethically, I am a European: this brings a whole load of ideas around liberty, tolerance, democracy and respect for the rule of law – and much more besides. Perhaps I feel a slight cultural bias towards Northern Europe, but the difference is slight.
Third in the hierarchy is the identity of being British. This is primarily a legal definition, an immovable fact I have no control over. This comes with mainly – but not wholly – negative connotations of what distinguishes Britishness from European-ness more generally. Much of this is bound up in our insular outlook on the world and our failure to complete the process of becoming a proper democracy. And last, and definitely least, comes the fact that I’m English. Even before 23rd June, I would be hard pressed to come up with significantly positive characteristics compared with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.
I was much struck by the 2000 novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth. It tells a complex tale of a professional man who slowly becomes ostracised by friends and colleagues through a combination of his actions and the revelation of his true identity. The idea of an individual carrying around an invisible but indelible stain is a haunting one.
My wife and I were recently on holiday (post referendum result) in a part of France where many people do not speak English. I had to get by on what I could remember of my schoolboy French. Occasionally people would ask me where I was from. I found it necessary, on each occasion, to say “Je suis anglais… malheureusement”. This last comment would usually elicit some sympathetic look from my questioner. My “confession” was laced with shame and embarrassment.
Those old tribal instincts had come into play. Post referendum, my stain is being English.
The stunned silence from this blogger over the past three weeks is a reflection of the turbulent times we’re going through. I was waiting for events to slow down a bit so that I could reflect on them. But events, dear boy, events kept on coming. Since the announcement of the fateful referendum vote on 23rd June, there are many of us still confused and bewildered. I’m certainly one.
There are plenty of places on the internet where people react to news events. In blogs, social media and so on, much of it takes the form of soundbites, often angry in tone. It’s mostly a case of people shouting at each other without listening. I’ve always tried to make this blog more thoughtful, analytical and reflective than that. But it needs to be rooted in the real world. That world, and in particular Britain, has been convulsed by radical change over the past four weeks. How can we make sense of it all, from a longer-term perspective? Below are a few ideas around the political themes which are beginning to get a bit clearer. (I hope to cover the economic issues next time.)
The Government We Have
So what sort of a government have we ended up with, for now at least? Well, let’s admit it: it could have been a whole lot worse. Theresa May as PM is clearly preferable to Gove, Leadsom (or Angela Loathsome – thanks Private Eye) or Johnson – in that order of awfulness – for different reasons in each case. And yet… May’s cabinet looks worse than Cameron’s in two respects. With the likes of Davis, Johnson, Leadsom and Grayling, the government is more right-wing than its predecessor and is likely to be more socially conservative. For all their faults, especially on economic policy, Osborne and Cameron were social liberals by the standards of the Conservative Party.
May’s speech in Downing Street after becoming PM made a whole load of references to the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged and could just have easily been delivered by PM Ed Milliband last May if the last general election had turned out differently. But the Tories have form in this respect: say one thing in the first flush of victory, do the opposite in office. Think Thatcher and her emetic quotation from St Francis of Assisi (I feel queasy thinking of it even now), and Cameron’s “greenest government ever” to “green crap”. So any initial optimism should be treated with great caution and much scepticism.
As for the opposition: in short, we don’t have one. The Labour Party has chosen this critical time for the nation to engage in one of the bitterest internal feuds I’ve ever seen. With multiple challenges and huge self-inflicted uncertainties and no clear sense of direction yet from government, we need an active and vigilant opposition holding May and company to account. Instead we have an endless feud and a drawn-out leadership contest which will most likely solve nothing.
I have some sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn when he says he was elected less than a year ago with a clear majority of members’ votes. Also, I agree with most of his policy statements (when they can be deduced). But the Party leader’s day job is to lead his or her team of MPs in the House of Commons. In this, he has clearly failed. It was asking too much of a man who had spent his entire political career as the outsider, the rebel, to suddenly transform himself into a credible Prime Minister in waiting.
Labour and Tories
All of which brings into sharp focus a key difference between the Labour and Conservative Parties. Whilst Labour bickers over procedures and following due processes for elections, the Tories go for the kill. First Johnson, then Fox, Gove and finally Leadsom were made offers they couldn’t refuse and they fell by the wayside. After months of the most vicious and mendacious feuding, they quickly fall into line, stand shoulder to shoulder and pretend they’ve always been the best of friends.
By contrast, some in Labour’s ranks seem happier fighting each other over points too trivial for the majority of voters than fighting the true enemy. I was with some Labour activists recently who were lamenting the fact that some factions within their party seem happier in opposition than in power, as it gives them the moral indignation of complaining how wrong everything is in the world. For them, being out of power is their comfort zone. It’s unsurprising, then, that there’s a mirror image in the Tory Party. A significant number of Conservatives consider themselves the natural party of power – by right – and resent it bitterly when, temporarily, someone else has the impertinence to win an election.
The State of Democracy
It’s ironic to note that both Labour and Conservatives have decided to have broadly the same selection procedure for their party leader: initial sifting by MPs followed by a members’ election from the top two candidates. The Tories aren’t afraid to bypass the second stage when their MPs don’t trust their own members not to vote for the loathsome Leadsom. Labour, by contrast, stick firmly to democratic processes, even if they know it could lead them into an endless loop of ever-more frustrating schism.
An opinion poll last week found that 61% of us agree with the statement that we should rarely or never again use a referendum as the mechanism to settle a decision as complex as membership of the EU. It’s easy to be wise after the event: ask a silly question….
This sorry affair brings into sharp focus one of the disadvantages of not having a written constitution. In most countries who do have one and which allow referenda, there will generally be some principles laid out. These typically would require some form of “super-majority” rule for votes which have far-reaching and major implications. These usually take the form of a two-thirds majority required for change, possibly with some minimum turnout figure. (Even the Synod of the Church of England has such rules!) Debated within the cool light of some constitutional convention, these rules would likely be seen as sensible and proportionate by most people. When setting the rules in a one-off Act of Parliament, as we did, such a rule would have been politically almost impossible. Howls of criticism from the usual rabid anti-EU campaigners would have classed it as cheating by those wishing to remain. The Labour Party allowed itself to be bullied into abstaining in the Commons debate: who would want to be the first to say the British people couldn’t be trusted with such an apparently simple question?
(Written constitutions are not, of themselves, a cure-all. I can immediately think of three obvious downsides of such a system in the USA: logjam in Washington, highly politicised Supreme Court judges and the notorious pro-gun lobby. Perhaps this is a topic worth discussing in more detail at some future time.) Tricky stuff eh, democracy?
What Price a Progressive Future?
For those of us on the centre-left of politics, these are bleak times indeed. I hold a deep belief in the improvability of human society over the medium-to-long term. Similarly, I believe in the power of more and better education and in the value of rational debate as a way of making progress for the greater good. Access to good information and a minimum level of honesty in debate are prerequisites to this. Religious fundamentalism, random acts of suicide / mass murder, the behaviour of politicians during the referendum run-up period, not to mention the threat of a possible President Trump, knock huge dents in that faith.
For the sake of future generations, humanity can – and must – do better.
This is a story bringing you news of the antics of some of the Mr Men today.
Mr Monster was an ogre. Mr Monster was the most evil man in the world. He owned lots of newspapers and made himself very rich. With all his money, he was able to tell politicians around the world to do what he wanted. How did Mr Monster do this? He used some of his money to pay policemen to reveal secrets about the politicians. Then he threatened the politicians he would tell unless they do what he wanted. What he wanted was new ways to make himself even richer. That way, he could afford to bully more politicians. Clever Mr Monster!
Mr Mad was mad. Mr Mad was delusional. He once worked for Mr Monster, so he knew ways to please him. He dreamed many dreams. These seemed very clever to Mr Mad. So he set about trying to make those dreams come true.
Mr Mad was put in charge of all the teachers. He went to their meeting, and they all laughed at him. This made Mr Mad madder. Mr Mad dreamed about how to get his revenge. He introduced many crazy schemes into the schools. He allowed people who, like him, knew nothing about teaching run schools. Some crazy things happened. How Mr Mad laughed! After a while, Mr Mad found that people did not want to become teachers any more. He also found that the teachers were leaving their jobs. Mr Mad scratched his head. What had he done? Silly Mr Mad!
Mr Look-At-Me liked to be the centre of attention. Mr Look-At-Me found a good way to do this. He would say silly things, the first thing that popped into his head. People laughed at his silly things, so he would say more. Sometimes he would contradict the last silly thing. People still laughed and nobody cared that nothing he said made any sense. Funny Mr Look-At-Me!
When he was a very small boy, Mr Look-At-Me had birthdays like other children. When he was four, he decided he did not want to get any older. So he stopped having birthdays. Despite being big and the size of a grown-up, Mr Look-At-Me is still four years old. His mummy even failed to get him to learn how to comb his hair. “Look at me! Look at me!! Me! Me!! Me!!!” he said. The people stilled laughed. Funny Mr Look-At-Me!
Mr Slime was made completely out of slime. Dark, green, gooey slime! Yeugh! Mr Slime hated everybody who was not like him. He wanted them all to stay where they were and not come close to him. Mr Slime’s slime smelled, a slimy sort of smell. The smell made people hate other people after they had smelled it. Mr Slime smoked all the time, to try to disguise the smell. Mr Slime drank beer. A lot of beer! He drank the beer to try to forget about the smell. People kept away from Mr Slime because of the smoke and smell. Slimy, smelly Mr Slime!
Mr Slime wanted everyone to think like him. Seven times he asked the people to vote for him. Seven times they said “no”. Mr Slime thought he had better find another way.
People thought Mr Two-Face had two faces. But it was not really like that. Mr Two-Face just wanted everybody to like him. So every time he spoke, he tried to tell the people he was with what they wanted to hear. So Mr Two-Face kept changing his appearance. He was a bit like a chameleon, except he didn’t change colour. Only he did a bit: his face went pink whenever someone told him he was wrong. Mr Two-Face thought he was never wrong. He was, after all the leader of all the people in his room.
Mr Pale-And-Thin was pale and thin. He was thin because he ate only a special diet called austerity. He was pale because spent nearly all the time indoors. He spent some of his time in his counting house, where he counted all the money. But he spent most of his time in his plotting house, where he plotted clever schemes to outwit the other people. He only ventured outside to visit places where people made things. There were so few of them now that it was getting harder and harder to find one. He wore a yellow jacket on these visits, to make him easier to see, because he was so thin. He also wore a hard hat, in case any of the people he had plotted against crept up behind him and hit him on the head. Poor, worried Mr Pale-And-Thin!
Mr Slightly-Grumpy was slightly grumpy. When he was younger, he had been very grumpy, and shouted a lot at his friends. Now that he was older, he had grown slightly less grumpy. But his friends were still wary of him. He said sensible things. But because he was grumpy, people didn’t take much notice. This made him a bit more grumpy. Grumpy Mr Slightly-Grumpy!
All the Mr Men were the best of friends, except for Mr Slightly-Grumpy, who just sat in another corner of the room and looked slightly grumpy.
The Big House
All the Mr Men in this story lived in a Big House. A very Big House! It had twenty-eight rooms, all of them big. What a Big House! All the Mr Men lived in the same room, Number Nine. This room had once been a tiny cottage on the other side of a little stream. A long time ago, a bridge had been built across the stream and Number Nine became part of the Big House. At this time, the Big House had only nine rooms and the people were happy. Over time, more rooms were added and the Big House grew bigger.
At first, all the rooms in the Big House had big, strong locks. They made the people feel safe, but the locks were big and clumsy and took a long time to open. The people grew cross waiting for the doors to be opened. The people in some of the rooms took the locks away, so they could move about the house more easily. The people in Number Nine kept their lock, which was big and strong.
To make the Big House work properly, the caretaker had set some rules. One of the rules was that anyone could move to another room as long as they had work to do there. Where there were locks, these had to be undone to let in the people with work. There were other house rules, too. The leaders in Number Nine didn’t like some of them and asked if they could be excused. The caretaker said yes to some of these.
Before The Big Vote
After Mr Two-Face became leader of a group of friends called the Nasties, he found that some of his friends were really very nasty rather than just nasty. Mr Slime had his own friends, The Stinkies, who were nastier even than the Very Nasties. His own friends kept arguing and some were saying they would leave the Nasties and join the Stinkies instead. The arguments covered many things but, above all, they argued about whether to take away the bridge over the little stream and make Number Nine a little cottage again.
Mr Two-Face had a very clever idea. He would ask all the people in room Number Nine whether to keep the bridge and that would settle it and they could all be friends again. Clever Mr Two-Face! But Mr Two-Face had a problem. He had been telling everyone in all the other rooms for so long just how wrong they were with everything. Very suddenly, he said that they were all really his good friends and that he wanted to keep the bridge over the little stream. Straight away, Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me crept up behind Mr Two-Face and stabbed him in the back! Mr Two-Face was very cross and went very pink in the face. Oh dear!
Over the next few weeks, Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me shouted at Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin. And Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin shouted back. Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin made up lots of scary stories and Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me told lots and lots of fibs. They all got crosser and crosser. All the people got very confused. Mr Slime joined in by showing a picture which made people feel very sick when they looked at it. The people were even more confused!
The Big Vote
In the end, the people were so confused that just over half of them said they wanted to tear down the bridge to the other rooms. “Hurrah!” they said, “We won!” and rushed off to tear down the bridge. Some people brought matches and tried to burn down the bridge. But, whoops! What’s this? The wind changed and the fire spread to room Number Nine. There was lots of damage. Everybody blamed everybody else! Mr Two-Face said he didn’t want to be leader any more. Mr Monster smiled quietly to himself. His monstrous master plan was working out very nicely…
What will happen next? Will the fire spread to the other rooms in the Big House? Will there be any bits of room Number Nine left to live in? Who will lead the Nasties? Will Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me still be friends? Or will there be more creeping and back-stabbing? Will Mr Slime crawl back into his slimy hole? Or has his oozy, stinky smell made too many people into Stinkies too? Watch out for the next exciting part of Mr Men 2016!
I’m planning to write a more reflective piece on recent events in the next day or two. In the meantime, here’s a short post with a few nuggets you may have missed in the mayhem.
The First Four Hours
In the first four hours since the referendum result was declared, the following two things (amongst many others) happened:
Britain slipped from the fifth largest economy in the world to the sixth, as a result of the sharp fall in the value of the pound. France’s economy has now overtaken ours.
Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, pledged “up to £250bn”, if needed, to be available to the banking system to maintain the confidence of the markets. Readers might like to compare this figure to the annual £7bn for the UK’s financial contribution to the EU. This equates to just 0.4% of our annual income (GDP). (The Brexiteers’ notorious, lying figure of £350m a week equates to £18bn per annum.)
English Comprehension Test
The following two statements were made by leading politicians on Friday, less than a day after the result:
Statement A:“We end this referendum more divided than when we started it.”
Statement B: “We can now, calmly and united, take our country forward in the spirit of the warm, humane and generous values that are the best of Britain”.
Question: The speaker of which of these two statements is in greater touch with reality?
Oh, and just for information… speaker A was Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party; speaker B was Michael Gove, Lord Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Government, serial liar during the campaign, in charge of our judicial system. (You just couldn’t make it up!)
This royal throne of kings, this blinkered isle,
This earth of poverty, this seat of wealth,
This other Eton; O, and peasants else.
This fortress built by nature for her self
Against infection by the stranger’s touch.
This scrappy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a sullen sea
Which minds it in the office of a wall
Now under-tunnelled by our neighbour France
To grant temptation to less happier lands.
Th’enfeebled leader “referendum” cedes
To backbench plotters, hatred in their hearts.
With forked tongues dissemblers do declaim
While radiant truth lies strangled in blood’s heat.
Prince Bullingdon did toss a coin to see
Which wind would bring the greater gain to he
Of power, no heed for consequence to us.
False Duncan, and fantastic Master Gove
Join Boris dancing on the grave of truth.
Like witches three, they bubble up a brew
Of false enchantment that wise heads rebuff.
Whilst from the rancid sewer of the mind
Crawls Nige of Dulwich, honour’s breaking point,
His poison brokered into every pore.
Meanwhile, there’s bread and circuses afoot
With England drawing to the second round.
And aged Queen, with ten and four-score years
Distracts the mob with sycophantic cheers.
The long-seen monarch, quizzical of gaze;
For, truth be spoke, she has seen better days.
The wider picture? Well, of nought be said
Spare not a thought for how our votes be cast
Affect upon those others, far and near.
The cursed stranger, crushed by tyrant’s yoke
Once looked this way for brave, inspiring hope.
His gaze averts, his countenance a-dark
Now finds no haven in fair Albion’s arc.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Can raise no greater sentiments than: me.
And decades long of fouling Mail and Sun
Hath leached and bleached the greater self, for shame.
Oh, little isle! Thou canst do more than this!
That England that was wont to inspire others
Hath made a selfish conquest of itself.
The horrible murder of MP Jo Cox has cast a poignant and heartbreaking shadow over the final days in the run-up to the EU referendum. The outpouring of grief and loss from her constituency and in Westminster show just how much she was loved and appreciated and how much she will be missed. It was a timely reminder that politicians – like other human beings – are nearly all good people. Jo, and MPs like her, work hard for their constituents and are driven by a positive desire to make the world a better place. And yet the standing of politicians in general is at an all-time low. It’s surprising how many people say “they’re generally a bad bunch – but mine’s all right”. Look no further than the usual suspects in the press to explain that.
(Incidentally, it was a sadly missed opportunity that the Daily Telegraph was the newspaper that broke the story about MPs’ expenses. The Barclay brothers’ Telegraph clearly had an agenda and spun the story to make all MPs look as bad as each other. This had two advantages to their “we support the Tories but want to push them even further to the right” strategy. Firstly, they knew that Labour supporters would be much less tolerant of such behaviour than Tory supporters, thereby giving the latter an electoral advantage. And secondly, discrediting all politicians further undermines democracy and makes it easier for the Barclays and their like to exercise more de facto political power.)
But, now back to current politics and the EU referendum. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Jo Cox stands the ultimate in the truly bad politicians: Nigel Farage. Just two hours before Jo Cox was murdered, UK politics sank to a new moral low when Farage stood in front of the now-notorious “Breaking Point” poster. This was a classic piece of political mischief-making straight out of the Joseph Goebbels textbook. There are, indeed, politicians – though thankfully not, in this case, an elected one – prepared to stir up the vilest of human attributes: bigotry, prejudice and barely-disguised racism. The poster was the most cynical misrepresentation of the facts showing a line of desperate people fleeing a war-torn country – none of whom are ever likely to come anywhere near the UK.
In attempting to distance himself from this despicable piece of fear-inducing, rabble-rousing propaganda, Michael Gove protested about how “shocked” he was. And Boris “I don’t really care who wins the referendum as long as it helps my chances to become PM” Johnson similarly distanced himself from it. Who are these people attempting to occupy the moral high ground? They’re leading the official Vote Leave campaign.
On the morning after Cox’s murder, a small 4-page leaflet, entitled The European Union and Your Family: The Facts, landed on my doormat. It was from the campaign team led by Gove and Johnson. Page 1 contains two “facts” that are both outright lies: the notorious £350 million a week bill for EU membership and the claim that Turkey is lined up to join the EU. Pages 2 and 3 contain 8 bullet points claiming to be facts. Two are repeats of those on page 1. One is broadly true. One quotes the figure of annual migrants from the EU, but fails to mention the number who leave each year, painting a misleading picture. One contains a complete non sequitur about the EU claiming “more control” to “prop up the Euro”. Understand that link? I don’t. One is a misrepresentation of EU and domestic law and makes the usual mistake about the European Court of Human Rights being part of the EU – which it isn’t. The last two are grossly misleading statements about the division of business and expert opinion. Page 4 repeats the lies from page 1, but now represented graphically. It also poses a totally irrelevant question to the one on the ballot paper.
In short, the leaflet is a crock of shit. It plays on the same fears and aims to stoke up similar base instincts that the Farage poster does. The moral ground occupied by the leaflet is barely higher than that of Farage. I disagree with David Cameron on most things, but I salute his robust statement on the BBC’s Question Time that the two “facts” on page 1 of the Vote Leave leaflet and the “threat of an EU army” are just outright lies.
Compare the people in the two camps in the referendum and compare the things they have said during the campaign. There is no moral equivalence. The economic argument has long since been won hands down by the Remain campaign. The so-called “Project Fear” has at least been an attempt to get across some basic information, albeit often in an over-simplified way. But the Leave campaign has been straight lies and personal attacks.
Who Are We?
So, the moral question is: what sort of a people are we British? Do we want to turn our backs on our closest neighbours and shout at them from the outside? (I use the word “closest” both in a geographical and a cultural sense.) A vote to leave would turn Britain into some form of international pariah: the country that abandoned its friends when times were tough. We would forfeit nearly all the moral authority we hold in the world, which currently allows us to punch above our weight on the world stage. In the words of historian Anthony Beevor, we risk becoming “the world’s most-hated nation”.
Are we as mean-spirited, bigoted, hateful of “the other”, xenophobic and downright misanthropic as you would find in a land created in the image of Nigel Farage? Or do we aspire to the “powerful and compelling humanity” of Jo Cox and the majority of her fellow MPs? I know amongst whom I’d rather be living, come Friday morning.
Readers of my earlier posts will know that I fundamentally disagree with the prevailing economic policy I call “free market fundamentalism”. Well, a new report by the “High Church” of economic policy, the International Monetary Fund, gives me some slight hope for a change. The report was written by Ostri, Loungani and Furceri of the IMF’s research department. Its sub-headline states “Instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion”.
To be fair to the authors, they do acknowledge that some reforms under the neoliberal agenda have been beneficial. For example, the increase in global trade and foreign investment has “rescued millions from abject poverty” and helped to transfer skills to developing countries. But the report highlights two specific areas with a far more critical eye.
Free Movement of Capital
The first area concerns the widely adopted policy of removing restrictions on the movement of capital around the world. Proponents of this policy state this enables capital to move to where it will be most productive. But in practice, a great many of these capital flows take the form of portfolio investment or speculative trading. There is no discernible benefit in terms of growth from such flows. What’s worse, there is strong evidence that it leads to much greater instability: “boom and bust”. This instability, in turn, damages growth and hurts poorer people most. In other words, it decreases stability and increases inequality. Increased inequality, in its turn, reduces growth. (See my earlier post Inequality Damages Your Wealth.)
The upshot is that freedom of capital movement does more harm than good.
Incidentally, it’s worth noticing the lopsided nature of Free Market Fundamentalism policy in this respect. Capital is allowed to flow freely across borders; people are not. (Look at the frenzy that the Brexiteers – über-free marketeers to a man – are whipping up about free movement of labour in the EU.) The link to inequality is obvious. The rich have capital to spare to move around the world. The poor have just their own skills, their own labour. Extra freedoms for the former and none for the latter are bound to increase inequality in the longer term.
Austerity policy is everywhere: it’s been George Osborne’s mantra for the last six years. Its stated aim of reducing government debt is always used as a cover to shrink the state. The report concedes that reduced levels of debt, all other things being equal, are helpful to growth. But the means of getting there is more damaging to growth than the benefits. It concludes: “Faced with a choice between living with the higher debt—allowing the debt ratio to decline organically through growth—or deliberately running budgetary surpluses to reduce the debt, governments with ample fiscal space will do better by living with the debt.” (The report states that the UK is a country “with ample fiscal space”.)
Two International Institutions
In summary, the IMF said that the discredited policies did not boost growth, that the downside in terms of increased inequality was “prominent” and this in turn damaged growth.
As well as the IMF, the OECD, the other main respected international body on economic matters, also weighed into the subject in February. Its report recommended that countries like Britain should reduce austerity and invest more public money in infrastructure.
The IMF report ends with these words: “Policymakers, and institutions like the IMF that advise them, must be guided not by faith, but by evidence of what has worked.” Quite: the FMF sacred cow is overdue for slaughter.
Sadly, the continuing misfortune for Britain is that we have a government, elected on just 37% of the popular vote, but over 50% funded by City organisations and finance companies – many specialising in the corrosive, speculative end of the business. Cameron and company will continue to take the City’s interests as the same as the nation’s. (My earlier post, The City: Paragon or Parasite? shows those interests are not the same – and more like opposites.) The necessary lessons from this new understanding will be learnt very belatedly, if at all.
But the good news is that the two main economic institutions in the world are now seriously questioning the orthodoxy of the past 35 years’ economic policies. There is a glimmer of hope that, one day, even the British government will realise the errors of its ways. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for the next crash before things start to change.
The long and faltering journey of humanity towards what we call “civilisation” has been going on for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of years. Boiled down to its most basic of elements, that journey amounts to this: a struggle between the higher, loftier ideals to which human beings aspire and our darker, baser instincts. On the “good” side, we might place such attributes as compassion, empathy, love, solidarity and the search for peaceful solutions to our differences. The “bad” stuff would include things such as anger, aggression, prejudice, bigotry, disrespect – even contempt, fear and dislike of the “other”, and so on. In short, I’m speaking of the struggle between the beauty and the beast in humankind.
It’s All Beastly
There’s a good reason the EU referendum “debate” has, so far, been such a disaster and a turn-off for the British public. It’s because it’s nearly all been so beastly. The arguments for and against have almost totally been framed in terms of the split right down the middle of the Tory party. Each side has played its big beasts: Cameron and Osborne for “In” and Johnson and Gove for “Out”.
The Remain camp have, indeed, focussed on “Project Fear”, based almost exclusively on the two things Cameron and Osborne understand: financial self-interest and security. The Leavers have banged on about immigration, stoking that most beastly of human emotions: fear of the Other. The Leavers, too, have also thrown quite a lot of numbers around, most of them outright lies, such as the spurious £350m a week figure – for which they have had the strongest possible rebuke from the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority.
And, of course, lurking in the background in the Exit camp, is the figure of Nigel Farage, the embodiment of all the worst and most bestial aspects of human nature. For me, he’s the perfect pantomime villain, the personification of everything I dislike about Britain. (There’s quite a lot about our country I like, too!)
Where’s the Beauty?
Fiona Reynolds, former director general for the National Trust, wrote an impassioned article in last Thursday’s Guardian lamenting the fact that the narrow pursuit of economic growth had crowded out that oh-so-human quest for beauty in our lives. It’s thought-provoking and worth a read.
Those commentators in the EU debate who have tried to emphasise the positive, uplifting aspects of our EU membership have been at the very margins of the debate. Some scientists have explained how much R&D and new scientific discoveries depend on EU funding. A group of musicians and artists praised EU support for enhancing the cross-fertilisation of ideas in the creative industries across Europe. I blinked and might have imagined it, but I think the Erasmus programme, encouraging cultural and education exchange between students in different EU countries, got a mention, too.
It’s ironic that the only (sort of) positive messaging has come from the Brexit camp: namely, the idea that the British, freed from the shackles of Brussels, will re-emerge and blossom in the brave new world. This idea, relying as it does on a significant air-brushing of our imperial history, is so delusional that I worry for the sanity of those who actually believe it.
Only 18 Days to Go
At the time of writing, there are two and a half weeks left to the referendum. Please, please, is there anyone out there of stature who can extol something of the positive, life-affirming aspects of collaborating, working, dancing, singing, learning and laughing together with other people with something new to offer? There’s a positive tale to tell out there somewhere. It’s still not too late to lift the tone.
Who remembers the Nudge Unit? It was all the rage and Cameron’s favourite “think tank” in the early days of the 2010-15 coalition government. Originally part of the Cabinet Office, it was privatized in 2014 and now goes under the name The Behavioural Insights Team. Its aim is still broadly the same: to use psychology and behavioural economics to inform policy making.
I was interested to note that Citizens Advice has commissioned this Team to produce a report, published last week, called Applying Behavioural Insights to Regulated Markets. I was keen to read their analysis and recommendations. It covers much the same ground as my blog post Cat and Mouse published last September. The new report is wider in scope than my post, covering energy (gas and electricity), telecoms, personal finance and pensions.
The Two Fallacies
I explained in my earlier post Two Castles (Part 2) that free market fundamentalism – the guiding economic policy for over 30 years – is fatally flawed by two false assumptions:
The only motive guiding human behaviour (in buying decisions) is the pursuit of material self-interest;
Consumers always make rational, well-informed decisions.
It was encouraging to see the BIT report fully recognizes the second of these two points. The report says: “there is compelling evidence that consumer decision-making systematically strays from what would be expected from a ‘rational actor’ within economic theory. These systematic deviations, termed ‘behavioural biases’, can result in ‘behavioural market failures’, leading to poor outcomes for consumers.”
The Good Bits
The report gives “compelling evidence” of these failures:
Mobile phone contracts overcharging by £355m a year;
Energy consumers paying, on average, £300 over the odds;
Loss of pension income of between £230m and £1bn over the life of a pension, with 80% of private pensioners missing out on the best deal.
The report also quotes insights from psychology, using the terms “type one” and “type two” thinking. This approximates to the decision making processes in each half of the human brain. It includes an analysis of the different types of “behavioural biases”:
Status quo (inertia)
Anchors (behaviour affected by suggested examples, e.g. suggested amounts on charity donation websites)
Choice overload (brain switch-off when presented with too many options)
Framing effects (how offers are positioned / described)
Present bias (up-front saving v. cheaper in the long term)
Timing (consumers more likely to act, e.g. switch supplier, at a key event, e.g. just before going overdrawn)
Overconfidence (optimistic assessment of ability to pay in the future)
Vulnerable customers (scarcity mindset: day-to-day scrimping leaves insufficient mental energy to make good decisions)
The report also goes on to make some useful recommendations about the actions regulators can take to address these problems. One example is in consumer education, what the report calls “simple heuristics”. These are simple rules of thumb to aid consumer decision making and which are likely to lead to a pretty good outcome most of the time.
The Black Hole
But there is one glaring omission throughout the report’s 62 pages. It basically assumes that free markets are the ideal paradigm in all cases. Much of what is recommended is about changing human behaviour to make markets work better. That sacred cow has not yet been slain. Which is a shame – and an opportunity lost. Five out of ten, at best then, Behavioural Insights Team.
So we must turn elsewhere. Interestingly, the IMF has just published a paper,Neoliberalism: Oversold?, which is the second publication from them casting doubts on the great god of free market fundamentalism. (I wrote about the previous IMF paper in an earlier post: Inequality Damages Your Wealth.) I’m off to read the new report; it may be worth a future post…