The Modes of May

This is the second post planned before my fifth hospital admission and is an update on my views on how well Theresa May is performing as Prime Minister. In summary, I believe she has two principal operating modes, best summed up by the epithets Little Miss I-Know-Best, introduced in June 2017 in my earlier pastiche Mr Men 2017 and Maybot, a robotic version, made famous by Guardian columnist John Crace. A third mode, used only out of sight of the public gaze, can be called May the Weak, reflecting the weakness and fragility of her position as the leader of a minority government.

I gave an early assessment after the Tory Conference in October 2016 in my post Who May She Be? about what sort of Prime Minister May would be; this is a kind of update. Reading this post again, I can summarize that I saw May as a hybrid mother hen and dominatrix; she’d said some positive things about inclusivity but I was deeply sceptical that she really meant it. Subsequent events have shown that my scepticism was well-founded.

Little Miss I-Know-Best

Little Miss I-Know-Best
Little Miss I-Know-Best

I introduced the character of Little Miss I-Know-Best to the pastiche of new and old Mr Men characters first featured in Mr Men 2016. The side of her personality that I wanted to emphasise there was her narrow-mindedness (“vicar’s daughter”), inflexibility and reluctance to take advice. Naturally shy, she seems to have made very few friends inside the Westminster bubble and so is short of allies when she needs them.

To compound the problem, the advice she does take seems to be poor and hindsight has shown she has chosen her advisers unwisely. The upside of this character trait is her stubborn persistence to carry on, spun as a strength by her spin doctors and the Tory-leaning press.

Her blinkered world view seems a regression in social policy compared with the Cameron years. I could not see May implementing – or having the authority – to carry through the introduction of same-sex marriage: vicar’s daughter again.

Her authoritarian streak suited her role as Home Secretary, where she delivered some of her most inhumane policy decisions. The most notable of these is the so-called “hostile environment” for allegedly illegal immigrants. This has led to policies such as indefinite detention of “failed” asylum seekers and most of those detained remain in the UK after their release. Recent notorious cases are about people who were brought here as children, lived all their adult lives in the UK and are now threated with deportation to their “home” country. A whole range of document checks to prove “entitlement” to work, housing and NHS treatment have thrown up some horrendous examples: here’s one.

May’s authoritarian instincts also show in the way she deals with other heads of government and EU officials. The tone is hectoring, often with an undertone of “The EU needs the UK more than we need them”. A good example was in her speech at the Munich Security Conference in February this year. Her tone simply irritates the others and encourages the more demented members of her Cabinet (Johnson, Fox, etc.) to adopt the same tone.

But perhaps the most famous example of her refusing to consider advice was her decision to call a snap election last year during a walking holiday in Wales with her husband Philip – a decision she must regret every day. And this was after denying seven times that she would do so, undermining her own credibility.


The Maybot

May’s second operating mode, usually used only in public, is the Maybot. This is a robotic automaton mode during which she is unable to answer questions and constantly repeats meaningless phrases until everyone is sick to death of hearing them.

At the 2016 Tory Conference, the slogan was “A country which works for everyone”; at the snap election, we heard “strong and stable” and “coalition of chaos” repeated ad nauseam. The Maybot mode is usually the default mode for TV interviews – making not answering the question into a kind of surreal, robotic art form – and, of course at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons.

There are so many examples of this type of behaviour that John Crace compiled them into a book I, Maybot, released in time for the Christmas present book-buying public – gosh, I do sound cynical!

May the Weak

May the Weak
May the Weak

There is a third, and less obvious, operating mode used by May, out of the gaze of the British public: May the Weak.

I really don’t think May has the strength of character to deal with tough negotiating positions. Her recent pronouncements on Russian state involvement in the Salisbury poisoning went down well, but usually we get May the Weak – behind closed doors. Her camp followers (Mail, Express, Telegraph) all managed to lead their front pages with news other than May’s basically caving in to EU demands for the transition period to exiting the EU. This necessity has been obvious to me – and made very clear by Brussels officials for year or more. May has felt trapped by her own party and simply wasted a load of time. In all this, she has shown no understanding of the concept of the National Interest – a requirement of being PM.

The three pictures above show other obvious examples of May the Weak. Her indecent rush to the White House to meet Trump after his taking up office looked – and still looks – weak and sycophantic. May (and Liam Fox’s) sucking up to despots and dictators (such as the Saudi government shown here) bodes ill for Little Britain negotiating its way in the big, wide world. And in a straight fight between Arlene Foster and Theresa May, my money goes on Foster – and we have the evidence to support this.

(Incidentally, the DUP, on whom May is dependent for Commons support, is entirely unrepresentative of the Northern Irish people – in two important ways. 56% of the vote in the province was for Remain. Also, the Free Presbyterian Church, a tiny lunatic fringe Christian sect founded by Ian Paisley, is grossly over-represented in the DUP; over 30% of DUP members and representatives are members of this highly socially conservative group. In the Northern Irish population as a whole, the percentage is 0.6%.) This traps May between the lunatic fringe in her own party (the Crazies I wrote about last month) and the lunatic fringe in Ulster. The National Interest simply doesn’t get a look in. May the Weak simply doesn’t cut it as Prime Ministerial material.


It will come as no surprise, therefore, that my overall verdict on Theresa May’s performance as Prime Minister can be summed up in one short word: crap. My next post (the third of three planned last month) will include my conflicted thoughts on a suitable alternative.


Casus Belli

I’m taking a short break from the second and third posts promised in my most recent one. This is because I simply cannot let pass the gross distortions and character assassination carried out two days ago by the “usual suspects” in the right-wing press. To make matters worse, this was obviously picked up in pale imitation on the BBC’s Newsnight the same evening.

The Offending Front Pages

Mail and Sun headlines
Propaganda, no less

Jeremy Corbyn made a clear statement in the House of Commons on 14th March in which he supported May’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats, but called for tougher action to control the money-laundering by Russian oligarchs, including those close to Vladimir Putin.  The Guardian in its fair-minded way reported how some of Labour’s backbenchers supported May’s stance over that of their own leader.

Even the US government under Trump has implemented the so-called Magnitsky Sanctions, named after the late whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky to target “politically significant” Russians. Our Labour Party and the Lib Dems have been pressing for such powers in the UK, but the people affected have been large donors to the Tory Party. Corbyn made this clear in his statement to the Commons on Wednesday. The Tories are now reluctantly bringing forward such powers.

True to form, the Mail and Sun spun this speech to make Corbyn look like a Putin stooge: the evidence you can see for yourselves above. Much more worryingly, BBC Two’s Neswnight (declaration: I’ve only seen the clip, not the programme as broadcast) photoshopped an image of Corbyn to, in effect, follow the Mail’s agenda, albeit in a more subtle way. The indefatigable Owen Jones appeared on the following night’s Newsnight to put in a robust defence of the truth, not the spin.

Link to Newsnight extract: please view!!

The Brits Like a War

The problem is that the politics favour the rush to judgement. When an outrage happens that potentially threatens us all, the “something must be done” mentality kicks in big-time. The gross miscarriage of justice of the Birmingham Six at the height of the IRA bombing campaign on the UK mainland is a good example. The Latin phrase for this is casus belli, literally “an excuse for war. European history of the last 500 years or more is littered with examples and the concept was around in classical Greek and Roman times.

The start of World War I is a good example: the counties of Europe just seemed ready for a fight. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a non-government agent just seemed to used as an excuse. Patriotism was rife: “It’ll be all over by Christmas!” was the confident cry. Oh dear, it wasn’t. I’ve never really underststood if there was a good reason to start the Great War, other than a bellicose feeling in the air. In my more whimsical moments, I put it all down to it being a fight between Queen Victoria’s grandchildren.

Please don’t understand me: I’m no pacifist: I believe fighting fascism and Nazism in World War II was necessary: a necessary evil. War is always the worst option. In 1939, it was the only options. Thatcher’s decision to re-take the Falkland Islands by force was another good example of the Brits’ keenness for a good punch-up. Thatcher rapidly went from being the least popular Prime Minister (by the opinion polls) to winning a landslide victory in the following General Election.

Opinion polls show May’s stance to be twice as popular as Corbyn’s. It’s no coincidence that the two politicians making the most bellicose speeches were Boris Johnson and Gavin “Spider Man” Williamson. Both have the ambition to be Prime Minister one day; both have ambition far in excess of their talent.

Whilst Johnson is an extreme narcissist, Williamson is simply a twat. Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, is supposed to be the UK’s senior diplomat. His undiplomatic speeches betray a complete misunderstanding of the requirements of his role. That May hasn’t sacked him only shows the extreme weakness of her position, as she delicately tries to balance the number of her more sane Cabinet Ministers and the Leave extremists. Williamson is the more dangerous of the two because the gap between his ambition and his ability and experience is so much wider than Johnson’s. Betraying his inexperience, he sounded like petulant 8 year old schoolboy his “go away and shut up” comment, pre-scripted. Bet that scared Putin!

In truly civilised nations, as I believe the UK should aspire to be at all times, there is such a thing as due process. Giving Russia less than 48 hours to explain it is innocent is assuming that the Russian is guilty without the chance of a proper investigation of its own. May refused to send a sample of the nerve agent to Russia to conduct its own testing. The UK is signatory to international treaties that allow states 10 days to respond to this type of accusation.. Russia claimed it had destroyed all its chemical weapons last year, a claim verified by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons .

And I concede this is a measure of inconsistency in Corbyn’s position as stated to the Commons. His support for the 23 diplomat expulsion is tantamount to saying Putin was lying when he denied Russian state involvement in the attempted murders.

Whose Propaganda?

I’m not naïve: it’s highly probable Putin lied and the Russian state is responsible. But the Mail and Sun have agendas. They will grab any opportunity to make Corbyn look bad and Labour inherently incapable of forming a government.  Paul Dacre is a hypocrite and true “enemy of the people” who not only benefits, as a major landowner, from EU handouts, but  also is comfortable with an economic system that is systematically biased towards the rich. The Mail’s ultimate owner, Lord Rothermere is a UK tax dodger with “non-domiciled” tax status. (This rule appears to be uniquely a UK one – see this rather old Guardian article). Rupert Murdoch clearly believes he can bully and persuade a government led by May more easily than one led by Corbyn.

In a straight fight between the TV station RT (owned and funded by the Russian state) and the BBC, the latter clearly wins hands down. But Blair’s sycophantic (to George W Bush) misleading of Parliament over Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” (the very phrase designed to obfuscate rather than clarify which types of weapon are being referred to) eroded trust in our Government’s statements. Repeated misleading propaganda since 2010 (e.g. on benefit fraud, blaming the poor and disabled for the 2007-8 crash, rather than the City, and that there was no alternative to austerity) has eroded that trust further.

But, coming hot on the heels of the ludicrous “Corbyn Was Czech spy” non-story, which the Telegraph joined in too, The Tories and their cheerleaders are looking increasingly desperate. This clueless government is acting more and more like the Nasty Party. When will the British public, in sufficient numbers, wake up and see this?


Changing Times, Changing Norms

This is the first of 3 blog posts I had planned to publish starting at the end of last month, following a further spell in hospital. An unexpected fifth, and hopefully final, one-week admission to hospital interrupted those plans. In total, I have spent 42 nights as an in-patient in the hands of the NHS – and, as a by-product, have seen first-hand the disgraceful and unsafe levels of staffing resulting from Osborne’s misguided austerity policy choice since 2010.

The second and third posts will cover, firstly, my views on Theresa May’s performance so far as Prime Minister and a kind of wish-list – “vision” would be too grand a description – of how I would like to see the next couple of years pan out and the kind of Britain I would want to live in.

Changing Time

But first, I want to give a broader sweep of how I think Britain has changed over my lifetime. (I can’t but help get rather reflective during all the boring hours I’ve spent cooped up as a hospital in-patient!)

The 1950s and 1960s

I was born four years after the end of World War II, a child in the 1950s and spent my formative teenage years in the 1960s. What follows is a very personal account of my memories of those years, filtered by time and the black-and-white images repeated on TV documentaries and elsewhere.

The 1950s, to me, were, in a word, dull. Everything was shut on Sundays. Pubs shut every afternoon – a hangover, still in force then, of emergency legislation passed during WW1. The feeling of those times was perfectly captured in a classic episode of Hancock’s Half-Hour, repeated regularly on Radio 4Extra. Just say “Stone me, what a life…” to anyone of my generation and that feeling instantly returns. In the 50s, everyone knew their place, authority was never questioned, the Catholic Church was free to condone sexual abuse on children forcibly removed from single mothers and other “undesirables”. No one had the temerity to question such authority.

There was a general air of sexual repression. Homosexual acts between men, even those in private and with consent, were criminal. The choice of food gradually improved following the end of post-war rationing, but British food was characterised as stodgy and uninspiring. That a future Conservative Prime Minister (David Cameron in one of the few things to his credit) would lead Parliament to legalise same-sex marriage was, literally, unthinkable.

The early 1960s were much the same, but things began to change, first in the world of arts (Beyond the Fringe, Look Back in Anger, etc), and, 3-4 years later, the politicians started to play catch-up. Harold Wilson ended “18 years of Tory misrule” and his “white heat of technology” and (in public, at least) embracing of popular culture – think Beatles, Mary Quant – are frequently cited from these times. (Incidentally, I saw the Beatles live at the Hammersmith Odeon, now Apollo, in 1965 and watched England beat West Germany in a pub in West Germany on a tiny black-and-white TV the following year. I obviously saw it with a German commentator, so it was several years later before the phrase “They think it’s all over, it is now…” made any sense to me!)

Social attitudes were shifting. The anti-Vietnam war protests in the USA and elsewhere and the “Summer of 1968” (particularly for French youth) showed that something fundamental was stirring. Abortion, albeit with strong limitations and still today not available to women in Northern Ireland – an abuse of women’s Human Rights, says the UN – was decriminalised.

To be a child of the 60s was to be optimistic for the future.

Attitudes to Smoking

One interesting example is the shift in public opinion in relation to smoking in public. In the 1940s and 50s, most men and half of women regularly smoked. As recently as the early 1970s, people were free to smoke anywhere on the tube: platforms, escalators and in all but two carriages of the trains. The shift to a total ban on smoking on public transport took about two decades to achieve. The horrendous Kings Cross St Pancras fire had a lot to do with it, but a gradual change in public attitudes payed, I believe, the major part.

Racism and Immigration

Overt racism was spoken everywhere. We’ve all seen the footage of the “No Blacks, No Irish” signs in the windows of rented accommodation. Immigration, mainly from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent was frequently resented and the immigrants themselves openly abused. “Paki” was a generic term of abuse for anyone from South Asia, Pakistani or not.

Things have generally improved over my lifetime and overt racism is much rarer. Morons like UKIP and the far right have poisoned the atmosphere as a direct result of Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum, but public attitudes in general seem to have moved in a progressive direction. Hostility to immigration has shifted away from black and Asian British people to more recent arrival from new EU countries in Central Europe, with Poles being the largest group (unsurprising as Poland has, by far, the largest population of the “new” EU countries).

New Labour and Anti-Discrimination

The New Labour years saw much anti-discrimination legislation: the Equality Act 2010 was a key consolidation measure. The incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU directly!) into UK law in 1998 was a landmark New Labour decision. It felt that the government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led public opinion slightly during this period, social attitudes shifted in a progressive direction under New Labour, notwithstanding their failure to move away from (albet watered-down) Thatcherite economic policy.

The 2010-15 coalition government under David Cameron included Cameron’s attempt to detoxify the Tory “Nasty Party” image with some genuine progressive moves: remember that George Osborne was a fervent advocate of same-sex marriage, more than counterbalanced by the most vicious and unnecessary economic policies of austerity seen in the post-war period.


All of which brings me to my main point. I think we have entered a new era of change in public opinion, and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has caught the public mood, particularly with young people.

It all started (in the UK) with revelations about Jimmy Saville. The more recent publicity about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women has made the movement for change global. Sexual harassment and abuse by the powerful (usually men) over the more vulnerable (usually women) is rapidly becoming as intolerable as smoking in public. #MeToo and similar online campaigns are the most manifest signs of this shift. A sea-change in public opinion is happening, which creates a period of upheaval and great danger.

Progressives and the (Far) Right

Those of us who consider our views to be progressive and in tune with what I call the “march of civilisation” must be extremely vigilant in such times. Our default mode is to try to enter into reasoned debate, using the evidence accumulated over our lifetime’s experiences: this blog being an example of exactly that! I like to think that there is an ethical code which underpins all my actions and arguments. Above all, the left has values and principles and something like the European Convention on Human Rights is on excellent example and a carefully constructed – after much dialogue – embodiment of those values.

By contrast, the populist right is opportunistic and seeks to appeal to peoples’ basest emotions. Facts are spun and cgerry-picked by the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and their ilk to put their chosen enemies, especially the BBC, in a bad light. Unfortunately, the unmediated tweets and posts which constitute Facebook and Twitter, binary “likes” and algorithms based on numbers of hits provide more fertile ground for this type of nihilistic behaviour than that of reason.

Things Can Only Get Better

And yet… I remain an optimist. The march of civilisation will continue, over the medium to long term. The term “British values” is exactly wrong and summons up a Little England mindset. “(North) European values” makes more sense to me, or just plain “civilised values”. Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on our membership of the EU on an ocean of misinformation and lies was the single stupidest political decision of harming the national interest in my life time. Ask a stupid question… It’s like taking a massive wrecking ball to the delicate structure of civil values and the checks and balances of democracy slowly developed over centuries of history. It just divides us and breeds intolerance.

And yet… I remain an optimist.

As I ststed above, the next 2 blog posts will be an update on how well Theresa May is doing as PM and some sort of hopes, wishes for an ideal way in which the next few months and years pan out. Watch this space. I’m back from 42 nights in hospital since Christmas and I have things to say. Watch this space…


Stephen Hawking

The death of Stephen Hawking at the age of 76 demands some commemoration.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

Up there with the all-time greats of science in history: to name a random selection:

Archimedes, al-Khwarizmi, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Fermat, Boyle, Newton, Watt, Lavoisier, Davy, Darwin, Planck, Curie, Rutherford, Einstein, Fleming, Schroedinger, Pauli, Dirac, Crick and Watson.

I salute your life, your work and your ability to inspire others. Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018. Mortal, after all…


Call It Out: Crazies!

Shortly, after the 2016 EU referendum result, a friend was in touch with an Italian colleague. “And I thought we were the crazies!” was all he had to say. As an Italian with contacts all over the western world, he was well used to being mocked for belonging to a nation with a long history of corrupt and unstable government. At this point, the Italians still held the distinction of appointing to high office a man uniquely unsuitable to the role: convicted fraudster and all-round embarrassment Silvio Berlusconi. I guess many an Italian was relieved when, just a few months later, the USA ran away with that particular prize.

If a sophisticated, worldly-wise Italian was shocked and bemused by the referendum result, what on earth could be going through the minds of similar, well-informed French, Germans, Dutch and so forth, who, although often with turbulent or shameful periods in their national histories, had forged a stable and peaceful half-century plus of open, liberal democracy built around shared cultural and political values, as exemplified by the project we now call the EU. For, after all, didn’t the Brits already have the best of both worlds? Having ungratefully pocketed all the benefits of being a member of the greatest free trading bloc on the planet, the UK had successfully negotiated a whole series of exemptions and opt-outs. These, in effect, give Britain the most bespoke terms of EU membership – in all but name. Had no British politician or leader in the previous 43 years spelled this out? Well, it’s obvious now: the answer is “no”.

And so, to the outside world, the United Kingdom, bastion of stability, often leader in human rights and the rule of law, had acted in a way which made no sense whatsoever. A sufficient minority (37%) of the electorate had led to a small majority (52-48%) of votes cast to make a giant leap into: what? The referendum, as worded and in the context of the most disgraceful campaign of my lifetime (Project Lies v Project Fear) was the stupidest idea any British Prime Minister has come up with in my lifetime. David Cameron hoped to settle a long-running dispute between a small faction of irrational irreconcilables and most of his party by holding a referendum which simply asked a stupid question. He very quickly found that referendums never solve anything: they just make things worse.

Come Fly With Me

The referendum question was the intellectual equivalent of the following scenario – but with much, much more serious consequences.

A group of 100 tourists is taken to an airport by some figure who asserts his authority over them. He gives them all a choice. “We can all stay here or we can all catch the same flight to somewhere else I can’t tell you where that will be, nor can I describe what it’s like there. But, believe me, it will be much better than here. You can all vote, simple majority wins, abstentions ignored”. 37 vote to leave, 34 to stay and 29 don’t bother to express a preference. So, off they all fly, to – where exactly?

Ask a silly question… So, was our Italian friend right to think we, as a country, were crazy?

The Real Crazies

To the last question, I would answer: “no, not really”. But, in our midst, specifically in the Conservative Parliamentary Party, there are some real crazies. Current estimates put their numbers at about 35. Most of them really believe that the EU acts as a constraint on British enterprise and that there is a Golden Dawn out there in British Empire 2.0. This belief ignores evidence: a 2% to 8% drop in national income outside the single market / customs union (the sharper the break, the bigger the fall). Any trade deal with China or the USA will be strictly on terms to their advantage and carry real health risks (antibiotics in beef, chlorinated chicken). And the most optimistic estimate is that new trade deals with all feasible countries outside the EU would replace only 1% of the 2-8% lost. And what about all the existing trade deals the EU has with non-EU countries: it’s far from clear they will be “rolled over” on transition day in 13 months’ time.

The chief Crazy of Crazies, the capo di tutti capi, is that thin bloke from Wiltshire. I won’t name him, but he takes being out of touch with reality to a new level of surrealist art form. He’s tipped to win any leadership competition amongst Tory Party members – now rumoured to be about 70,000, with over half aged 65 and over. Tories refuse to publish any membership information since 2013. Compare that with Labour’s more youthful 570,000 – or even the 400,000 Tory members in 1997. So the Tories are vulnerable to entryism – and so the threat of the crazies must be removed.

Most of the other crazies are variations on George Orwell’s sheep in Animal Farm: they never got beyond “private sector good, public sector bad”. That would include a pair of particularly dim-witted women (Andrea Loathsome and “Mad Nad “ Dorries) . Plus of course, Liam Fox, a true believer whose breach of the ministerial code when Defence Secretary should have banned him from high office for life.

Which brings us to the last two significant crazies: Johnson and Gove. Just as Donald Trump only makes sense reimagined as a 3 year old trapped in a man’s body, so Johnson is a 4 year old who speaks Latin. No one has ever been sure whether he is sincere in his dislike of the EU, since his narcissism and naked ambition are the only driving forces. Gove is much harder to read – and so more dangerous. He all-but destroyed accountability in education and he is said to be playing “the long game”.

So be very, very afraid! With “nanny changes nappies” Piltdown Man, loose cannon Johnson and who-knows what Gove contending for the top job, our utmost priority is to stop them all.

So How’s May Doing?

In short, awfully. Cameron’s weakness and recklessness gave way to May’s weakness, lack of respect on the world stage. I’ve spoken before of her obsessive secrecy and failure to gain the trust of others. We’ve wasted the best part of two years on dithering around the phase one terms and a recent 2-day “war cabinet” (why “war”?) made it all too clear the cabinet, as presently constituted, will never be able to reach agreement on the UK’s position for post-2019 or 2021.

Strange to say, I actually want the Tory Party to survive as a credible possible future government. May must act decisively to rid herself of the 35 or so crazies who continue to tear the party apart – and who are still making all the running. If her famous dogged survival instincts mean anything, she must face up to the real enemies of the people: Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch (both must die soon: perhaps the shock will kill them both!), the non-domiciled owners of the Express and Telegraph. (None will be too happy and the fightback will be brutal.) But there are plenty of sane Tories willing to sit down with Labour and SNP MPs, review the evidence dispassionately and present proposals to parliament. The “vision” thing, i.e. what kind of country do we want to be, won’t come from May: she has no talent for such a role. But a group of cross-party non-crazies might just save us from a cabal of Tory fanatics from pulling the whole edifice down around our heads. (Assuming the roof of the Commons chamber doesn’t fall in first!)


The State We’re In

I’ll try to mention this only once. One of the main reasons my blog has been silent for several weeks is the fact that I was in hospital for 19 days getting treatment for pneumonia. An “atypical” strain, as the doctor called it. One of the things my “atypical” pneumonia did was to send me mad for two or three days. Enough detail.

But one thing a patient has in hospital is time: lots and lots of time. Enough time to think about… whatever. Every day, after lunch, my wife would bring me that day’s newspaper. I had plenty of time to keep up with the news, albeit at least half a day behind everyone else.

A few days after coming home, I was looking frustrated, or depressed, or something. “What’s wrong?” my wife asked. “Too much news,” I replied. She looked more confused and concerned. I tried to explain: it went something like this. In more “normal” times, the odd jaw-dropping ridiculous piece of news would be reported every few days. You know, the ones that make you want to SCREAM with frustration, because you can’t think what, practically, you do about it. It felt to me like there was an average of about three such news items in every day’s paper. I’ll mention some examples later.

For several days, I agonised over what to do about this: something different, perhaps. But then I thought, for now, all I’ve got is this sodding blog. So here’s some stuff I’ve been thinking.

We Have No Government

Belgium famously survived 589 days in 2010-11 without an elected government. The USA effectively has had no government since Trump took over as president: not only because of his own complete unsuitability for the job. He also dismissed practically everyone with any expertise in the White House relating to their departmental responsibilities and replaced them with partisan zealots and idiots.

More worrying is the lack of a properly formed government in Germany. Federal elections were held on 24 September last year. Angela Merkel has been trying to form some form of minority or coalition government since. Google “formation of German government 2017-18” and you’ll get a whole series of articles published at various dates showing the twists and turns. Right now, everything seems to hang on the internal politics of German’s Social Democrats and its leader, Martin Schultz. (This is far more important to the UK’s future relationship with the EU than the death throes of UKIP: BBC please note!) Wikipedia, as is often the case, has a useful summary here.

And so, finally, to the UK. On the face of it, we have a stable-ish minority Tory government, but in hock to the worst possible political party with sitting MPs in Westminster, the DUP. The best summary I’ve heard is that the DUP are “the political wing of the 17th century”. Women’s rights not a strong point. Arlene Foster knows how to turn the knife to extort £1 billion for her pet projects. She’s a hardened negotiator: as a schoolchild, she was on a school bus that was bombed by the IRA because the driver was a soldier in the UDR. She can run rings around Theresa May, brought up in the sheltered environment of a vicarage in leafy Oxfordshire.

May is a shy character who made few friends as she rose up the political ladder, ran the Home office with minimal consultation with cabinet colleagues. There is practically no cabinet discipline – yes I do mainly mean Boris Johnson, with Michael Gove as the more Machiavellian side-kick. By not standing up to the crazies in her party, she has trapped herself in a needless “leave / remain” balance every time a minister gets sacked for misdemeanour. She is famously in office, but not in power. A sharp drop in interest in what she had to say at Davos this year (not much) reveals that the rest of the world is losing interest fast in the UK’s plight. As a German radio commentator remarked astutely last month, the UK is not only leaving the EU but is also walking off the world stage.

The practical consequence of all this is that May doesn’t have a snowball in hell’s chance of agreeing what the UK wants out of the EU negotiations – to the increasing frustration of the EU27 and key figures in Brussels.

Theresa May Keeps Sucking Up to Trump

After her notorious rush to Washington DC in early 2017, the hand-holding and the premature offer of a state visit, May seems to have had a bit of another love-in with Trump at Davos this week. So here’s a little game to play. Hands up all those who think any UK-USA trade deal agreed to by Trump’s America will NOT be heavily biased in favour of the USA. Any with their hands up, check out Trump’s past form on deal-making: it’s always a “win-lose” arrangement. AndTrump always has to win. Any still with their hands up? I say you’re either deluded or have not been paying attention.

Free Market Fundamentalism Is Finally Falling Apart and Its Name is Carillion

The collapse of Carillion, with public sector workers like firefighters rallying round to deliver school meals, is probably the turning point in public opinion about how we run our economy. The “privatise everything, cut working conditions, use PFI to fiddle the public deficit figures” approach has finally been caught out for what it is: dogma and sheer bollocks. The evidence has been piling up for years: privatised railway companies and ever-higher rail fares, to take an obvious example. A cry from the heart by Andrea Albutt, President of the Prison Governors’ Association,  in Tuesday’s Guardian tells you all you need to know about the folly of more outsourcing and expensive, inflexible contracts.

The Tories will pay lip service to this change, but they don’t really get it.

The NHS Is In Crisis: I’ve Seen It

I said I wouldn’t mention it again, but I was in an NHS hospital on the busiest day of the year (New Year’s Eve / New Year’s Day). I saw an excellent, safe system begin to crumble at the edges. I was moved wards 4 times in as many days as there simply weren’t enough beds. Sound familiar? Now it’s personal!

Having Net Immigration Targets Is Asking the Wrong Question

Anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear will observe one obvious truth about the NHS. It’s staffed with dedicated, hard-working people from around the world, both from within the EU and beyond. If even one in ten left, the entire system would come crashing down around our heads.

Two newspaper reports this week really did make me want to SCREAM with frustration. The first was on the difficulty facing the NHS in recruiting nurses: nationally, only one in seven advertised vacancies get filled. In May’s leafy Maidenhead constituency (where house prices are SO high), the success rate is one in 400. Osborne’s austerity policy of 2010 slashed nursing training places and we’re still living with the consequences. Similarly, an article told of at least 20 doctors who had been recruited, at great expense, from outside the EU and offered posts with salaries of around £30-£40,000. Unfortunately for the doctor and the hospital desperate for their skills, the Home Office had unilaterally changed the rules: the one that limits visas to “skilled” workers. And the definition of “skilled”? Those offered at least £55,000. I guess the Government was thinking of all those highly paid city types. I’ve seen nurses at work first-hand in recent weeks, and I’m in no doubt who are the more skilled. And it isn’t the City types.

Add in a ridiculous tale of a Pakistani Humanist who was threatened with deportation because he couldn’t identify Aristotle as a humanist philosopher. 120 philosophers, including A C Grayling, have weighed in stating that the question was not a reliable way to establish someone as a Humanist. In other words, the Home Office official who had dreamed up a “trick” question was stupid and ill-informed. Probably racist too: after all, surely all Pakistanis are really Muslims, deep down?

These cases illustrate the rotten core and sheer inhumanity at the heart of the Home Office. Many of Theresa May’s predecessors at the Home Office didn’t last long: I guess their humanity couldn’t cope. The fact that May thrived there and Amber Rudd is turning into a very effective Mini-May, should give cause for great concern about the suitability of these two holders of key government posts.

Finally, net immigration targets. This was a pledge made by Cameron and became the obsession of May as his Home Secretary. It doesn’t even relate to real people! It’s merely the arithmetic difference between two sets of figures: The number of immigrants entering the UK each year (i.e. real people) and the number leaving (also real people). The numbers go up and down, mainly in line with wars and conflicts around the world and the skill needs of sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and healthcare. To cap it all, May suppressed the report showing only 5000 students a year overstayed their visas: the home Office had estimated 100,000. When the facts conflicted with the policy, the facts were suppressed for a period.

So, anyone believing the “net immigration” figure is a sensible target is so, so missing the point!

UKIP Is Falling Apart Before Our Eyes

So, enough of frustrating news and the evidence that we are living under the most incompetent government in my lifetime. Here’s some good news instead. UKIP is clearly in its death throes. Let’s just let them die with the minimum publicity they deserve. And, memo to the BBC: stop giving publicity to Jacob Rees-Mogg! We don’t need another loony on our screens to replace the Farage creature.

The Tories Will Split

Finally, a prediction. I think it is inevitable that the Tories will split. The irreconcilable crazies have had too much of the running. May is still running scared of them and their rabid cheerleaders: Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay brothers. Remember the quote: “I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.'” “Take Back Control”? My arse. Remember, it was the EU who took on Microsoft and Apple over anti-competitive and tax-avoiding behaviour. The EU also took on the mobile phone companies and abolished mobile roaming charges.

The Tories have been split over Europe, to a greater or lesser extent, since 1973. The stench of death reached a peak in the late 1990s in the dying days of the Major government. The same smell is in the air today. Despite their famous discipline for sticking together, no one can hold together the irreconcilable crazies and those Tories who actually understand enough about the economic consequences of leaving the EU. The split will come: it’s a matter of when, not if.

Let’s face it. Theresa May has the shittiest job in the UK right now. If she had any skills of leadership, a vision for the future or even an ability to make friends, things would be different. She could have ignored the crazies and their media supporters, reached out across the floor of the Commons and said this issue is too important to be left to a minority party propped up by a bunch of loonies. It’s obvious the likes of Keir Starmer and Anna Soubury have more in common that Soubury and Fox, to give a random example. A cross-party committee of the “sensibles” would have worked out a reasonable negotiating stance by now.

Let’s hope the Tories split before too much more damage is done. I’m feeling faintly optimistic. But our enemies are very strong, rich and powerful.

A Plea

If you agree with anything in this post, or want to challenge something, please, please send me a comment. I’m tired of my readership being a small group of like-minded people. Forward this (by Facebook, Twitter, email or whatever) to those you know who disagree. Let’s get a proper discussion going.


Otherwise Engaged

I apologise to my regular followers (both of them!!) for the lack of blog posts in the past few weeks.

Part of the reason is the fact that I was in hospital for 19 days, starting on Christmas Day. I’ve had a lot of time to think about any number of things. Also, a lot has happened in the news in the past few weeks.

So, pardon me if I say I don’t really know where to start!

Watch this space, I’ll be back soon!


Two Cancers

Alan Milburn’s comment crystallised my thoughts for this blog post. In his resignation letter, he states that the government “does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure that the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality.” Milburn was Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and the whole Board, including a former Tory Education Minister, resigned en masse in frustration. He’s talking about the huge distraction of the UK’s negotiations and preparations for leaving the EU and the inability of the UK Government to deal with anything else.

The obvious analogy was of a virulent cancer spreading throughout the body politic of the UK, preventing the government from, well frankly, governing. Sadly, the UK is suffering from not one, but two cancers, as I shall explain.

Cancer One

cancer cells

The first cancer has been around for a long time, for the whole lives of nearly half the population: since the late seventies or early eighties. I’m talking, of course and yet again, about the economic theory that I call Free Market Fundamentalism. I’ve written at length on this topic: in particular in the posts Two Castles (Part 2) and A Fundamental Contradiction. Started by Thatcher and Reagan, FMF has been steadily pushed as the economic orthodoxy ever since. It even persuaded New Labour to adopt a watered-down version. The system crashed and burned spectacularly in 2007-8, and now most economists admit it has failed.

But Free Market Fundamentalism refuses to die. A supercharged variant, widely known as austerity, was pushed very hard by George Osborne when Chancellor. The Tories ran a persistent and morally repugnant propaganda campaign to deflect blame for the crash to  the poor and to public spending. This deflection has acted as a smokescreen for ideologically driven policies to shrink the state.

One Symptom

One inevitable consequence of FMF is rising inequality. This is not only bad for economic growth (see Inequality Damages Your Wealth). But greater inequality worsens a wide range of social evils, listed and analysed in Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 book The Spirit Level. Trust for each other decreases, mental health worsens and drug misuse increases. Physical health declines, life expectancy shortens, obesity rises and educational performance falls. Abortions and births to teenage mothers increase, as does the overall level of violence, leading to higher prison populations. And social mobility falls, taking us back to where we started. Wilkinson and Pickett show both the statistical relationship between inequality and these factors and also offer plausible chains of causality from inequality to each social harm done.

The level of inequality in the UK, after falling throughout much of the 20th century, has for the past 35 years been on the rise again to match the level last seen in 1914. And yet Philip Hammond’s recent budget shows mostly a continuation of austerity policies, accompanied by fine words and a tiny bit of tinkering around the edges. Could that be due to the fact that inequality benefits those who donate to Tory Party funds (and also benefits Cabinet Ministers and their families)? Labour, by contrast, has proposed a shift to economic policies more in line with the way humans actually think and make decisions: see Corbyn Gets It, May Doesn’t.

As Free Market Fundamentalism has persisted as an ideology, it has even begun to affect the very language that we use, clouding our ability to think through solutions to problem we have brought upon ourselves. The small majority in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum undoubtedly included a protest vote against austerity that tipped the balance. So our first cancer, still very much with us, triggered the second.

Cancer Two

cancer cellsThe second of our two cancers is, of course, the UK’s EU referendum result and its aftermath.

Pre-cancerous activity, almost wholly confined politically to the Conservative Party, started at the time we joined the EEC in 1973, or even earlier. A small bunch of committed anti-EU Tory zealots have been grumbling and complaining, with increasing vehemence, ever since. I’m thinking of Bill Cash, John Redwood and their ilk. These grumblings were largely contained until Thatcher (who was originally fiercely in favour of the single market), started on the road to mental illness and her increasingly rabid anti-EU rants. This only encouraged the incorrigibles, who grew in strength and number. The last few years of the John Major government saw the Tories at each other’s throats over Europe on an almost daily basis. “Bastards” Major called them.

But the cancer proper only really got started under David Cameron. Major’s erstwhile “bastards” had been joined by other backbenchers and a few who actually made it into the coalition Cabinet. The real fillip to the cancer was Cameron’s admission he could no longer contain his rabid anti-EU right wing and tried appeasing them. This was offering an in-out referendum after the 2015 election. This only encouraged the lunatic fringe in the Tory party.

Cameron’s weak leadership is only surpassed by his extraordinarily bad judgement. Previous indicators of this include the appointment of Murdoch-trained Andy Coulson as his communications chief, despite being warned off privately that he was toxic. And he was the man who inflicted Michael Gove on the teaching profession, wreaking havoc that will probably take more than a generation to put right. Another Murdoch mole, perhaps? (Who would fancy sending their child to a school run by the Fox Academy Trust?) But the great, great superstar of poor judgement was to call the EU referendum. Cameron hoped it would heal the “divisions in the country” – by which he really meant in the Tory party. Healing’s going really well, eh?

The Usual Suspects

This second cancer has been really helped to grow by another toxic gang: the right-wing press, all of them owned by multi-millionaire, often foreign, tax exiles. Let’s look at them in turn. The Daily Express is owned by Richard Desmond, the only UK-resident Brit in the bunch (Hampstead).Desmond has sold off his former porn magazines and TV channels, has denied a link to the New York mafia in the 1990s, but still carries an air of sleaze about him. The Express has been consistently deluded – and plain wrong – about the EEC and EU since even before we joined the Common Market. My favourite front-page story from the early 1970s Express was that joining the EEC would threaten the existence of the “great British kipper”, a story as accurate as all the others that have followed. Today, the Express, much reduced in circulation and influence (especially compared to its arch-rival, the Mail), seems reduced to being like a demented pensioner, muttering anti-EU tirades interspersed with wholly inaccurate stories about miracle cures and extreme weather. Kippers to Ukippers. Let’s hope someone puts it out of its misery soon.

The Daily Mail has always taken a misanthropic attitude to the world – and pays scant regard to fairness or the truth. But, even after its support for Hitler and “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in the 1930s, it’s really excelled itself as shit-stirrer and hatemonger to the nation in the past year or so. Owned by a multi-millionaire non-dom tax exile, it wears its professed “patriotism” in the way that it hates those who don’t agree with it. “Enemies of the People” and “Crush the Saboteurs” show its anti-democratic instincts at their most despicable: the low-point for UK journalistic ethics so far. The Mail is a cancer in its own right.

The Telegraph has, for many decades, been the Pravda of the Conservative Party. However, under the ownership of mega-rich, reclusive, litigious bully-boys, the Barclay brothers, it seems determined to push its favoured political party increasingly rightward and to be more xenophobic.  And then there’s Murdoch’s Sun. Less consistently carcinogenic than the others: it’s too often distracted by soap stars, footballers (and their wives) and “reality” TV. So, it plays a slightly different role: it brings out its big guns at the crucial times. For then it shouts abuse at “Europe” in the language of thugs on the streets.

In their various ways, these four rags – and occasionally Murdoch’s posher Times – have strongly encouraged the spread of Cancer Two.

Links Between the Two Cancers

So, the poor patient, the body politic of the UK, has been under threat on two fronts. Cancer One has been with us for decades now: initially slow moving, it has gradually undermined the body’s immune and defensive systems. Tolerance, empathy with the poor and vulnerable and a sense that there’s value in the “common good” have all been weakened significantly – perhaps fatally. But the possibility of a cure still remains.

Cancer Two has been diagnosed more recently. Thatcher triggered it, but it was only during the dog days of the Major government, its effects began to be seen. There was a measure of remission in the Blair and Brown years, but Cancer Two flared up big-time from 2010. This has all the threat of the cancer that will kill us as a civilised liberal democracy.

And so, finally, it’s no surprise that there’s a clear link between the two cancers. The True Believers in Free Market Fundamentalism and austerity tend also to be the same people who take the most virulent anti-EU line and see the EU, the other 27 member states as “the enemy”. They pursue their fantasy of British Empire 2.0: the old White Commonwealth countries whose markets are miniscule compared to the EU. Plus the most powerful two nations (USA and China) whose normal behaviour – ruthless pursuit of self-interest – will be magically set aside for favourable trade deals with us.

Cancer One hasn’t cured the British Disease (as they see it), yet the True Believers want more of the same. These same people, in their guise as Leave Extremists, want the shock doctrine of Cancer Two: EU Cold Turkey. (No, I don’t mean the country that isn’t going to join the EU, as Leavers would have us believe). These deluded people hold the balance of power in our ramshackle government. And yet, they believe that, by some magical process of alchemy, the dead body of all we value in Britain will somehow be reincarnated as a Golden Paradise – but for the mega-rich and powerful only.

Be very afraid.


Chancellor v Chancer

For well over a year, I’d been planning to write a blog post on Gordon Brown: his time as Chancellor and PM and his legacy. And then, about three weeks ago, Polly Toynbee, prompted by the publication of Brown’s autobiography, writes a piece for the Guardian along practically identical lines to what I’d planned. Serves me right.

Gordon Brown and George Osborne
Brown v Osborne

So, in the light of last week’s budget, I’m writing a slightly different piece, comparing Brown to his successor-but-one, Gideon George Osborne. Two very different personalities with very different legacies. It’s a case of chancellor v chancer.


Gordon Brown always comes across as a product of his modest but comfortable Scottish Presbyterian upbringing. Instinctively frugal, with a concern for the betterment of the lives of his fellow human beings, I feel he developed a strong ethical code to guide his life. Brown was brought up to be straightforward, to tell the truth and always do the right thing. He appears naturally shy and reports by those who know him say he comes across as a much warmer person in private than his public persona. Not obviously gregarious, he was suspicious of the motives of his closest colleagues, which increased during his time as PM almost to the level of paranoia.

George Osborne, by contrast, is a whole different kettle of fish. Polished and self-confident, he carries a powerful air of entitlement common to those who were educated at a posh school: St Paul’s in his case. He carried with him into Parliament an absolute conviction that he was born to be part of the ruling class. Isolated from any but the most privileged, he has never shown any interest in the needs and concerns of all but the richest and most privileged. By happy coincidence, these are the people who fund the Tory party. Along with Boris Johnson, Osborne above all shows the most utter contempt for the truth: any lie will do as long as it serves his own purpose. Perhaps the two most egregious are these: firstly that Labour were responsible for the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and secondly, by conflating fraud and administrative error, gave a totally misleading impression of the level of benefit fraud. (The much-bandied misleading figure was £5 billion, only 20% of which is fraud, some 0.7% of the total benefits bill.)

Rabbits and Hats

Different though their personalities are, both Brown and Osborne share one thing in common. Both could not resist the temptation, on Budget day, of making the Budget speech into a theatrical event. Both would spring the odd eye-catching announcement, like a rabbit from a hat, intended for maximum political effect, even when the economics was dubious. And both carried great political weight and authority within their respective Cabinets.

rabbit in hat

Another thing in common is that both Georges are history graduates: Brown with a first-class MA and a PhD from Edinburgh and Osborne a 2:1 from Oxford. (Although Osborne’s degree was in modern history, I can’t help imagining that his favourite read was The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.)

The similarities end here. So what is my verdict on their performances as Chancellor of the Exchequer and on their subsequent  legacies?

The Chancellor

For Brown, I distinguish his time as Chancellor between pre- and post-financial crisis, the latter including his time as Prime Minister. In summary, my overall verdict for the first phase is “mixed”. For the second phase, I believe that Brown was the most authoritative and respected financial leader in the western world.

The first period included policies which I would count against Brown. Together with Tony Blair, he accepted the basic tenets of Thatcher-Reaganite Free Market Fundamentalism and only watered them down a bit. Direct taxes were lowered somewhat and no serious attempts were made to rebalance the UK’s lopsided economy away from over-reliance on services and financial services in particular. Worse still, Brown expanded the use of Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) as a means of financing many public sector capital projects, to keep down public sector debt. This has left a toxic legacy, most notably in the NHS.

On the other hand, much good was done during Brown’s tenure. Child poverty was drastically reduced from the Thatcher / Major legacy: the proportion of children living in poverty fell by a third. The introduction of Child and Working Tax Credits was a major factor in this. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, Britain’s most respected independent economic think-tank, also notes the drop in pensioner poverty. The IFS too, whilst noting that inequality rose under New Labour, “there is evidence to suggest that these reforms prevented a larger rise in inequality than actually occurred under Labour.” Several other non-fiscal policies funded by Brown’s Treasury, notably Sure Start centres introduced more strategic reforms to bring about long-term improvements to the life chances for children from poorer households. So, overall in the period 1997-2007, the good probably exceeded the bad, but not by much.

That balance changes after the global crash. Whilst Toynbee’s claim that Brown “saved the world” over-dramatizes it a bit, Brown was a key player in stabilising the financial system after 2007. His decisive action immediately after the crash and a package of pro-growth measures turned recession to modest growth. In 2009, he pushed hard for the introduction of the so-called “Tobin Tax”, a very low levy on all financial transactions and named after the economist who first proposed it. The tax is designed to reduce the riskier behaviour of the finance services industry, whose recklessness caused the 2007-8 crash, which started in the USA. Brown seems to have been the first world leader to grasp that things must change. He also was clear that, in order to succeed, reforms needed to be coordinated across a critical mass of the world’s economies. Any one country going it alone could easily be picked off by rogue “beggar my neighbour” states.

In 2009-10, globally Brown seemed to have grown in stature on the world stage as a key influencer of change to the economic order. Tragically, his standing at home was in rapid decline, by a combination of his personality, concerted attacks by the Tory opposition and their more rabid running mates in the press and the accusations of cowardice for not calling a snap election. (Strange how snap elections, or the lack of them, can swing political fortunes in a trice!) His increasing troubles domestically reduced his standing abroad and the opportunity for lasting, international reform was lost. If Brown had somehow managed to win an election in 2009 or 2010, things may look very different today, but the scent of decay and decline for the New Labour project was in the air.

The Chancer

Enter, alas, George Osborne. He lost no time about implementing a new order of austerity. First, Labour’s legacy was trashed. There was the lie, already mentioned, about Labour causing the crash. To make matters worse, who remembers now that shadow Chancellor Osborne promised in September 2007 to match Labour’s spending plans. This was a cynical political move to try to detoxify the Tory brand as the “Nasty Party”. So the lie was, in effect: “It’s all Labour’s fault, but we would have done the same”. Secondly, a coordinated propaganda campaign was remarkable successful in persuading public opinion that it was now all the fault of benefit scroungers: the new “straw man” to deflect blame from his friends – and Tory donors – to the poor. It also provided convenient cover for the long-term FMF project of dismantling as much of the state as possible, for zealous ideological reasons. Reducing the public sector deficit became a total obsession, to the exclusion of other economic objectives.

The effect was to kill the (albeit weak) growth induced by Brown’s and Alistair Darling’s careful nurturing of the post-crash economy. It wasn’t helped by Osborne’s ridiculous and reckless assertion that the UK economy was weaker than Greece’s, which was patently untrue. This helped to flatten business confidence overnight. Actions have consequences, George.

For balance, I’ve tried hard to think of a policy change introduced by Osborne of which I approve. I’ve searched the web to remind me but, sadly, I can’t find anything. Let’s just say Osborne was one of the best of Cameron’s cabinet in modernising the Tories’ position on social policy: for example, he was one of the strongest Tory supporters of same-sex marriage. But on the economy (his day job), no.

Taking spending power from the poorest in society is a good way to reduce demand and shrink the overall economy, as the poor spend a higher proportion of their income. (The rich tuck their spare cash away in safe tax havens.) This, in turn, reduces tax takings and pushes up the government deficit. What’s worse, with lack of growth in the economy, debt as a proportion of GDP is higher than it would be. Osborne famously predicted in 2010 he’d eliminate the deficit in 5 years: he failed spectacularly. We’ll be lucky if we achieve that objective by 2030 on present policies.

Cameron and Osborne eat pasties

Of all Osborne’s budgets, the 2012 “omnishambles” was arguably the worst. He gave us a cut in the top rate of income tax for the highest earners and the failed attempt to introduce the “pasty tax”. Greggs had a field day as politicians fell over each other to be photographed eating a pasty. Not his finest hour!

Legacies and Might-Have-Beens

So, what can we thank these two contrasting characters for, by way of legacy? For Brown, his reforms made significant progress in reducing child poverty (tax credits, Sure Start centres and the rest). But he left vast areas of the public sector saddled with repayments to private sector companies making vast profits from Private Finance Initiative schemes, which Brown expanded significantly.  Most importantly, he was quick to improvise policy in unprecedented times of crisis in 2007-8. Whilst painful for the economy, his decisive action saved the UK from a potentially far, far worse fate: a 1930s-style Great Depression.

And as for Osborne? He gave us austerity: a dogma-driven, economically illiterate policy for which he lied that there was no alternative. As well as being morally wrong, it simply doesn’t work. Most economists now accept that this is the case, and some came to this conclusion sooner than others. Here’s a US analysis from four years ago pointing out the failure of austerity. Even now, Chancellor Philip Hammond has left policy largely unchanged, his recent budget just tinkering around the edges. And, of course, austerity has already undone much of the good work on reducing poverty, remorselessly back on the rise.

So the poignant “what might have been” is if Gordon Brown had had more time to lead western opinion to move away from Free Market Fundamentalism, in concert with other nations. This would also have started a measured move for thee UK away from over-reliance on financial services towards a healthier, more balanced economy. We could have had less inequality, less poverty, no EU referendum, no unnecessary trashing of the economy to come after 2019.  We’ll never know.



Half-Term Report

Did you spot the milestone that the country reached last Friday? I didn’t at the time. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, here’s a clue:

It’s the time of year when people buy advent calendars. This year, perhaps, the squares on the calendars should be re-numbered, starting with 483 and ending with 459.

Still don’t know? Read on…

Anguish of 1000 Days

Or 1009, to be exact. There are 1009 days between 23 June 2016, the date of the EU referendum, and 29 March 2019, the date the UK leaves the EU on current government plans. Friday 10th November 2017 was the first date when more days have elapsed (505) since the referendum than days left (504) until the leaving date. So, how is the UK Government managing the process? It’s time for a Half-Term Report.

In summary, I’d put it like this: achievement: none, progress: extremely poor. Let’s examine these areas in more detail.

On Day 20, Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister – Labour took another 73 days to re-confirm Jeremy Corbyn as leader, following a leadership challenge started in early 2016. May appointed her triumvirate of relevant Ministers: Davies, Fox and Johnson immediately afterwards. Leaving aside the fact that none of these three was remotely suited or capable of carrying out their appointed role, for May, at this stage, it looked so far, so good.

But there followed a period of dithering and bickering within the Tory Party about when to trigger Article 50, which started the 2-year countdown for completing negotiations. It was obvious nobody knew what to do, the relevant departments were unprepared and no plans existed to articulate the UK’s negotiating position. Eventually, after mounting pressure from the rabid Leave wing of the party, Article 50 was triggered on 30 March this year: 280 days after the referendum. Clock ticking, 729 days to go.

Minority Report

After denying seven times since appointment as PM that she would call a snap election, on Day 279, May called a snap election. As is well known, her campaign was a disaster and the result of the election on Day 330 was a hung parliament. Her Parliamentary majority and 51 days lost. Two further days were lost before May, after misleading the Queen – who was “not amused” – found a sufficiently large bribe (£1 billion) to get the DUP to support key Commons votes. The Government was now in hock to what has been described as “the political wing of the 17th century”. Not good for the Northern Ireland Peace Process or the suspended Stormont devolved government, but, hey, who cares when it’s the future of the Tory Party at stake.

Groundhog Days

Six rounds of negotiations have been held since then. The EU had held an early meeting with the European Council and Michel Barnier, their chief negotiator, spelled out the timetable and the famous “sequencing” demands. This stated clearly that “sufficient progress” on three topics important to the EU27 (divorce bill, citizens’ rights, Irish border) would need to be made before talks could start on a new trade relationship. Weeks were lost when Davies (with noises off from other “rabids”) blustered and resisted, before giving in and agreeing to all these demands on the first day formal negotiations began.

At the end of each round, Barnier has stated that the UK hasn’t given sufficient clarity on each of the issues, whilst Davies made repeated vague comments about progress and “flexibility”. 19th October – Day 463 – was the deadline when the UK was hoping the EU27 would agree that sufficient progress had been made. It was obvious talks were all but stalled. May’s speech in Florence on Day 435 made some conciliatory-sounding general declarations but was empty of any useful detail. The speech was given a cautious but reasonably warm reception by “the other side”. However Davies and his team failed to clarify any of the three key areas in the period since then. It’s obvious why not: May hasn’t the authority within her minority Government to thrash out an agreed position. The UK still can’t agree what it wants. The deadline was missed and it’s pushed back to some time in December – round about Day 540. Don’t hold your breath.

As part of the farce, Davies had stated there were reports on 58 industry sectors about the impact of leaving the EU. On Day 473, the government refused a Freedom of Information request from a Labour MP to publish these to Parliament. The government then caved in two days later, following a threatened revolt and potential lost vote in the Commons, but said it needed time as there weren’t 58 reports – 58 backs of fag packets perhaps?

Day 508

So, here we are, on Day 508. Nothing of note achieved in Round One of the negotiations in the 228 days since the triggering of Article 50. The screams of anguish and frustration from the leaders of many industry sectors, the CBI, Chambers of Commerce, etc. are growing louder. Contingency plans for a post no-deal “cliff edge” scenario are being drawn up all over the place – including the EU27.

As a further sideshow, on Day 496 and Day 502, two Cabinet ministers were forced to resign with a weakened May making the minimum reshuffles necessary to stop the whole house of cards from toppling over. Still, 501 days to go: there’s only nearly all of Round One (key EU issues) and the whole of Round Two (trade) to sort out.

Meanwhile, Some Good News

One short article in today’s paper caught my eye. A German charitable trust has donated €1 million towards the cost of refurbishing the world’s oldest cast-iron bridge at Ironbridge in Staffordshire. The trust’s chairman said: “Not only do we admire the Iron Bridge as an important technical landmark, but we also see it as a potent reminder of our continent’s common cultural roots and values … In the current climate it seems more important than ever to raise awareness of the links in our industrial heritage and our broader cultural bonds.”

Aah… “Our continent’s common cultural roots and values” and “broader cultural bonds”. They’re two of the reasons I voted Remain. Didn’t hear them mentioned once during the referendum campaign.