The Pied Piper and the Clockmaker

Nadine “Mad Nad” Dorries MP, fervent anti-choice campaigner and former “celebrity” jungle dweller, said on TV yesterday that Theresa May should sack Philip Hammond as the Treasury were being “too negative” about the UK’s leaving the EU.

Once upon a time, there was a pied piper. He lived in a small town on an island just off the coast of Eutopia. He spent his days quietly, mostly staying at home playing tunes on his pipe. Children would pass by his house and hear the music through the windows. The children talked to one another and, slowly, his music gained more fame.

The piper’s most treasured possession was a large gold watch, given to him by his grandfather. His grandfather told him that the watch was given to him by his own grandfather. Usually, the watch kept good time. The piper wound the watch every day, and all was well. But then the piper began to notice that the watch was not quite so good at keeping the time. He tapped it and shook it, but it did no good. He became more and more angry. The tunes he played on his pipe became louder and louder, and more children gathered to hear them. Their parents were a little worried, but they thought to themselves: “What harm can befall our children by listening to a piper and his music?”

One day, the piper was really mad about his gold watch. In his rage, he threw the watch to the ground. When he picked it up again, the piper saw that the glass was cracked and there was a small dent in the side. But, most importantly, the watch had stopped. The piper wound the watch. No ticking. He shook the watch. No ticking. He shook it harder, but it made no difference.

The Clockmaker

The pied piper was still angry – in fact, even angrier than before. “I must find a clockmaker to mend my watch”, he thought. So he went down the road to the clockmaker’s shop. He told the clockmaker that he had dropped the watch. The clockmaker examined it carefully. “I can mend the broken glass quite easily” he said. “And can you just bang the inside of the watch with a hammer to fix the dent?” asked the piper.

The clockmaker opened up the watch and looked inside. “I’m afraid it’s not a simple as that” he said. He showed the piper the inside of the watch. It was full of delicate, tiny wheels and levers. “All of these levers and wheels are connected together in a complex way. It looks like there’s been a lot of damage. Mending all the wheels and checking they work together properly will take lot of time and skill”. The piper looked angry and snatched the watch back. “Experts!” he muttered and stormed out of the shop.

“I don’t need that clockmaker!” thought the piper. “I’ll find someone else to fix it in a trice”. So he went all around the town asking for anyone who could help. Nobody said they could. At this, the piper grew angrier still. He went back home and picked up his pipe. He started playing, louder and more strangely than before. The children of the town heard the strange piping and started to gather outside the piper’s house.

The piper found that playing the strange tune in his house didn’t make him any less angry. “I know,” he thought, “I’ll go for a walk: that will calm me down!” So he opened the front door and went outside, taking his pipe with him. He started to walk down the street, heading for the highest cliffs on the island. All the time, he continued to play his strange tunes. The children started to follow him down the street. We all know how that story ends, don’t we, children?

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In Retreat

At last! After 35 years of Free Market Fundamentalism hegemony, there are now clear signs that this sociopathic philosophy is finally in retreat. I’m basing these remarks in particular on the events of the past two weeks: the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences. What’s significant above all is Theresa May’s admission of the existence of market failure.

For too long – far, far too long – the logic and language of markets have been used to describe practically every human activity. Two extracts from an excellent article by Dawn Foster about housing in today’s Guardian illustrate my point.  The first: “Leaving housing to the market prioritises profit over human experience and the right to shelter.” The second, quoting theologian Herbert McCabe: “There is something bizarre about the present popularity of the word ‘market’ as a metaphor for human society. Markets are surely a good and necessary part of living together, as are law courts and lavatories. But none of these are a useful model for what human society essentially is. Indeed so.

Housing is a good example of market overreach. Something intangible, but very valuable, was lost to us when we started treating houses as investments, rather than the places where we live and build our lives. Worse, to rent, rather than to own, one’s home is seen as some kind of moral failure. Other obvious examples of overreach are the privatised utilities and railways: 80% favour renationalisation. Indeed, if they could find a way of doing it, the “true believers” in the Tory Party (including several Cabinet members) would privatise the very air we breathe. Then we could have a cartel of Tory Party-donating private companies overcharging us for every breath we take!

But it looks like the fightback has begun in earnest, and Free Market Fundamentalism is in retreat.

Labour in Brighton

Corbyn and McDonnell
Corbyn and McDonnell

And so to the Labour Party Conference.  The buoyant mood in the packed conference hall reflected a feeling that times are changing. But the Party was still quite a lot of seats behind the Tories in the election, so word of caution is needed. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been consistent for a long time with a coherent set of economic policies. Misbranded as leftist or Marxist, Labour’s economic policy would have been totally mainstream in 1970s Britain and would still look so in much of mainland Europe. But the growth in party membership, particularly amongst younger voters, would suggest these policies’ time has come again. Their balanced approach is, of course, in tune with what it means to be human, as I’ve said long ago.

Talk of Labour taking Britain back to the 1970s is ironic in one respect. Jacob Rees-Mogg , the darling of Tory Party activists (average age 71) , also wants to take us back to the 70s – the 1870s!

Tories in Manchester

The empty seats at the Conservative conference betrayed the fact that Labour now has six times the membership of the Tories – and increasingly youthful. And the rows of grey-haired, bored-looking Tory delegates for the most part expressed the air of a party which has lost its way. A Party in retreat.

But most telling were May’s two policy announcements that were heralded as the most important: cash for social housing and a cap on utility bills. Both, of course, pinched from Labour.

social housing
Social Housing

The £1.2bn announced for social housing sounds a lot of money. But when it was admitted that would only fund 5,000 new houses a year, it was quickly seen as underwhelming. Nearly 40,000 new social houses were built in the year 2010 when David Cameron took over from Gordon Brown. That’s now down to about 6,000. So May’s promise just takes us a tiny way back to where we were. But it’s important as an admission that the housing market is not meeting people’s needs.

Miliband revisited!

The second policy announcement, a cap on utility bills, is also an admission of market failure. And here, of course, May is channelling her inner Ed Miliband. When he, as Labour leader, proposed more-or-less the same thing, he was hounded down by the usual suspects in the press and by his Tory opponents. Where’s the criticism now? Once again, markets are in retreat.

And yet, just a few days before, May had sung the praises of free markets. The Tories really are all over the place on this, in contrast to Labour’s consistency.

That Speech

Theresa May and falling F
Supply your own caption!

I couldn’t finish without a word about May’s speech at Conference. I’ve written in the past about the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude. As (I hope!) a decent human being, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the woman about her cough. But I did laugh a lot at the falling letter F: the “F off, everyone” implications are too great! But the metaphor for a crumbling Party and a failing ideology is all too obvious. Perhaps this was the moment when the old economic orthodoxy was – without a doubt – in retreat.

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Corbyn Gets It, May Doesn’t

I have been watching and waiting, with increasing despair, for an end to a disastrous 35-year experiment with our lives. I’m talking of the economic policies which have dominated our politics since Thatcher and Reagan began their counter-revolution in the 1980s. At last, in Jeremy Corbyn, I see the first signs that this may, at long last, be happening.

The sociopathic approach to economics which I call Free Market Fundamentalism collapsed and failed, big time, in 2007-8, initially in the USA, spreading to other western economies. The UK was particularly vulnerable owing to our over-dependence on financial services and the consequential destruction of most of our manufacturing industry. Ten years on, we are yet to change course.

The Evidence

And yet, the evidence of the collapse of the old order is everywhere to see:

  • 80 dead and 200 families homeless in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s the natural consequence of contempt for the poor – yes, I do mean you, Kensington and Chelsea Council, and many more besides. And a disdain for proper regulation, in this case mainly fire regulations.
  • 400,000-plus passengers left high and dry following mass cancellations of Ryanair flights. This is caused by a combination of contemptuous treatment of passengers as cash cows and disgruntled pilots with inferior working conditions.
  • The loss of Uber’s operating licence in London, for failure to take passenger safety seriously and using unethical but (just) legal methods to deny basic employment rights to its drivers. This threatens inconvenience to users and a loss of thousands of jobs after Uber’s unfair business practices decimated the traditional minicab businesses.
  • Young renters paying 3 times as much as their grandparents did at the same age for a roof over their heads, as a direct result of decades of a disastrously marketised and deregulated – and self-evidently dysfunctional – housing policy.
  • The rise and rise of the use of “inspiring” (thank you, Jacob Rees-Mogg) food banks, the majority of users from working households. This follows the introduction of vindictive changes of policy in the treatment of benefit claimants.
  • A highly fragmented and confusing education system with demoralised teachers as a result of a false belief that the mantra of competition is appropriate in the particular case of educating our future citizens.
  • Shocking and illegal levels of air pollution in our major cities, concentrated in poorer areas, as a result of under-regulation of vehicle emissions and failure to stand up to vested interests.
  • Rises in energy costs and rail fares and under-investment in the future resilience of our basic infrastructure, through privatisation of key areas of our economy where markets and competition simply don’t work.
  • A worrying rise in intolerance, abuse and violence against minorities, women and political opponents. This follows decades of encouragement from newspapers owned by tax-dodging tax exiles. But it’s now amplified by the more lunatic fringes of social media and the blogosphere.

There is a clear chain of causation which links each of these outcomes back to the FMF dogma, which can be summarised as “greed is good”.

May and Corbyn

May at BoE

The Tories seem blind to all this, too busy tearing themselves apart over Britain and the EU to notice. Theresa May’s speech today, commemorating 20 years of Bank of England independence, was largely a paean to free markets. To be fair, she did mention the importance of proper regulation. But she has been saying this for some time, and it’s all words, no deeds. You get the impression that her weakened position as leader can only be sustained by continuing to bow to the gods of the status quo.

corbyn at brighton
Corbyn at Brighton

By way of contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s closing speech to the Labour Party Conference yesterday recognises that times have changed. And that only Labour has caught the mood. He is clearly determined to embrace the break from the follies of the last three and a half decades and bring us back to the true mainstream. I disagree totally with Corbyn’s critics who try to paint him as some left-wing extremist. Labour’s policy announcements are classic mainstream social democracy. Most of his policies, e.g. rent controls and public ownership of key infrastructure industries, are everyday mainstream politics in other European countries. And, as I have arguing in this blog for over two years, social democracy is a perfect fit for how human beings – psychologically healthy ones at least – actually think.

I hope that Corbyn and colleagues can continue to surf the wave of the realisation that things must change. And about time!

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Truce and Lies

The truce didn’t last long. But the lies, I suspect, will go on and on for a long time to come.

At the end of Theresa May’s much-heralded “big speech” in Florence, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond made a big, theatrical show of “unity”. They were seen walking out of the meeting as if they were the best of friends. Barely 24 hours later, civil war over Europe had broken out again in the Tory Party. It must have been one of the shortest-lived truces in politics.

This time, hostilities resumed mainly over the length of any transition period following the UK’s planned 2019 exit from the EU. Johnson’s backers claimed his one-man alternative post-exit “vision” in the previous Saturday’s Telegraph had “saved” Britain from purgatory: an even longer transition period, wanted by Hammond and nearly all of British business. His opponents deny this, of course… and so, on and on it goes.

David Cameron’s desire, when announcing an “in-out” referendum, was that this would lance the boil of the Tories’ eternal war over the EU. As was obvious at the time, this was never going to happen. To mix my metaphors, they just can’t stop picking at the sore.

May’s “Big” Speech

So much for the truce. What about May’s speech itself? Well, the tone was more conciliatory, which is welcome. But what about the content? Well, “big” it wasn’t.

We did learn three things which help to clarify the government’s position – a bit. Firstly, EU citizens’ rights will be drafted into the exit legislation: no change of stance, just a bit more reassurance for the millions fearful for their future. Also, at last, a statement recognising the reality about the UK’s financial obligations on leaving, but with the figures still vague. And finally, the two-year transition period – the very subject over which new internecine fighting has resumed. But there was nothing at all to replace the “magical thinking” about the Irish border – one of the key sticking points currently.

Perhaps worst of all, there was nothing new at all said about the long-term relationship Britain desired: the “vision thing”, if you like. The reason for this omission is obvious: Cabinet members are still fighting like cats in a bag on this key strategic point. May’s lack of authority and weakened position following the recent election means the most difficult question is still a can licked down the road. But this is the key point which is delaying business investment decisions and increasing the risk of multinationals moving their businesses out of the UK – to Britain’s permanent, long-term detriment.

Instead, we got the usual vacuous stuff about close relationships and advantageous trade deals. These fine phrases are just a more diplomatic variation on the “cake-and-eat-it” position that we all know is impossible. Reaction from the EU and other national leaders is, unsurprisingly, underwhelming.

Theresa May in Florence
May in Florence – or anywhere?

And finally, a word about the venue: Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance. More specifically, in a side-building of a fine Renaissance church just a stone’s throw from Florence’s main railway station. (May as vicar’s daughter continues to show!)This location, at least, was convenient for the British journalists catching the train from Pisa Airport, the nearest with regular flights from the UK. For this appears to have been an entirely British affair: British Prime Minister, three Cabinet members (all flown in at UK taxpayers’ expense) and a bunch of UK journalists. No one from other countries seemed particularly bothered to hear what May had to say. The Germans, in particular, had much more important matters on their minds.

Yet, despite the magnificent Renaissance surroundings, the drab choice of set meant that the TV visuals could just have easily have been done in a warehouse in Coventry. May’s advisers had done their research on European history. The 17th century Renaissance was the precursor, a century later, to the European Enlightenment. It’s a pity May wasted the opportunity to give us any enlightenment on the direction in which she is aiming to lead the country.

The Lies

I’ve entitled this piece “Truce and Lies”. As we’ve seen, the truce didn’t work. But we can confidently expect the lies to continue. Johnson’s Telegraph article, mentioned above, repeated the lie about the EU’s £350 million a week and the NHS, which brought him a strongly-worded rebuke from the head of the UK Statistics Authority. The article was a flagrant act of insubordination and a clear breach of Cabinet collective responsibility. In normal times, this would have led to instant dismissal by the PM. But, of course, these are not normal times. May is trapped by the arithmetic in the House of Commons and a prisoner of the extremist Leave wing of her party.

Talking of which, I fear it’s some time before those extremists, Johnson, Fox, Gove, Leadsom et al, stop repeating the ultimate EU-related lie. That’s the one that says there’s a future for the UK outside the EU which is better than if we were to remain. That’s logically impossible: there’s no queue of countries lining up to do deals to replace the national income to be lost through exiting the EU, for example. I can only hope there’s a scenario where we change course before too much damage is done.

I’m moving towards the end of my seventh decade on this planet. I cannot remember a time when we have been so badly governed as we are now. Or when we were faced with a more important set of political choices: the biggest since the end of World War II. We need a proper government, led by people of ability and vision. The current ragbag of the inadequate, the incompetent and the downright delusional is just about as far away from that as we could possibly get. How did we let the Tories get us into this monumental mess?

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Clifftop Britain

Imagine the situation. You have been living for a long time with 27 other people on the top of a high cliff. The sea at the foot of the cliff is often rough and stormy. You’ve kind-of got along with each other, but you’ve had your disagreements and rows. You’ve developed a reputation as being selfish, arrogant and a bit standoff-ish from the rest.

Beachy HeadYou suffer from mood swings. The 27 others have closely observed these over time and they have increasingly caused frustration and resentment all round. They have calculated your changes of mood in a statistical way. For the 16 hours a day when you’re awake, on average you spend six hours in an irrational frame of mind, ranting and shouting how much you hate all the others and how much better off you’d be on your own. For a further five and a half hours, you actually seem to get on rather well with the others. You realise how much you all have in common. But you seem to be too embarrassed to admit this to the rest. For the remaining four and a half hours, you frankly don’t seem to care either way.

The Bad Night

Not so long ago, you had a really bad night’s sleep. You woke several times after really scary nightmares, shaking and fearful for the future. You also had some other dreams, waking feeling strangely euphoric and slightly delusional. The morning after found you lacking in sleep, tetchy and fretful. In a moment of pique, you blurted out that you were leaving the clifftop to go and live on your own at the foot of the cliff.

The others all thought you were mad, but they had mixed feelings about your decisions. They were genuinely sorry to see you go. But, as a result of the bad feelings that had built up over your periods of anti-social behaviour, their sorrow was tinged with a sense of relief. There was genuine concern about how you would get on by yourself. No one had ever seen what it was like at the foot of the cliff: its shape blocked the view. And no one had seen any trace of a footpath or of a climbing route down the cliff face.

The 27 had a meeting to coordinate their position. They used as their guide a document you had all signed recently and for which you took the leading position in drafting. They offered to work together to help you find a safe route down the cliff. You had previously boasted that you were once world class at rock climbing. But everyone knew that you hadn’t done any since 1973. Your skills had gone rusty, your muscles flabby. And, frankly, your mood swings showed that your sense of balance left a great deal to be desired.

The Way Down

But the 27 also set two conditions to their help.

  1. They would use their collective knowledge and experience to help you find a safe passage. But in the event of a dispute as to the next step, you must take the advice of their nominated expert.
  2. They set a deadline. You had five days to discuss the best way to the cliff foot, pooling your collective knowledge. If, on the sixth morning, you had not reached agreement, they would push you off the cliff edge.

Things went badly at first after this. Your mood swings worsened. You shouted and ranted. You said you wouldn’t be told by some so-called expert what to do. Not for one minute. You asked for a vote of support from your followers, but this only made things worse. Two whole days passed with no progress made. Your own closest friends shouted conflicting advice. You hid in the mountains for several hours to try to sort out your thinking. Sometimes you think that, at the foot of the cliff, there lies a golden beach, calm seas and blue skies. At other times, you imagine there to be only the most treacherous of rocks.

So, now, what do you do?

  1. Jump off the cliff straight away, shouting “I told you it would be all right” repeatedly until your head is smashed on the rocks below?
  2. Carefully plan the safest way down in cooperation with the 27 others and agree to their terms?
  3. Continue to dither for another three days until you are thrown off the cliff by your exasperated companions?

The Real World

I’m pleased to see that the Labour Party has come off the fence and chosen option b. The Tories continue to be divided irreconcilably, with the likes of the deluded Liam Fox in the “a” camp (abetted by the rump-rabble of UKIP and the usual suspects in the press) and more economically-literate Tories like Anna Soubry and Philip Hammond in the “b” camp.

And above it, but not really in control of it all, sits Prime Minister Theresa May, still in the “c” camp. Journalist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris is right when he condemns the absolute recklessness of the Tory Party in getting us into this mess, putting futile attempts at party unity ahead of the national interest.

For goodness’ sake, will somebody please save us from this bunch of clowns?

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Justice for All

I only ever attended one Employment Tribunal during my career, about twenty years ago – and I found it a bit of a pain and a waste of time. So, at first sight, you might think I have some sympathy for the headline in today’s Daily MailDaily Mail headline

But I don’t. Here’s why.

My Tribunal Experience

My presence was required at an Employment Tribunal as a result of a grievance claim from a former member of staff who was dismissed for gross misconduct. I was the senior manager and the final step in the company’s appeals process: I had dismissed the appeal and upheld the sacking. The offence was theft of a small amount of cash. We had a clear policy on this type of misconduct: the nature of the work required a high degree of trusting our staff and the hard line was pour décourager les autres.

The case took two days and was held in Croydon: a two hour journey each way from home. The tribunal dismissed the claim and awarded us costs. I admit to feeling slightly sorry for the guy, for his poor judgement and false hope in thinking he had a case. But I was also irritated by the – to me – waste of everybody’s time. Was the case “spurious”, to use the Mail’s language? In their eyes, probably yes, but I felt that “misguided” would be a more accurate term.

Grayling’s Failing

Fast forward to 2013. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling introduced fees for ETs, of up to £1200 for the more complex cases – extra if there were appeals. The reason Graying gave was to deter “vexatious” cases, an assertion made without conducting any research into the verity of his statement. Volumes of cases fell dramatically, by more than 70%. If the assertion that fees would deter the more frivolous and less worthy cases, the success rate of the remaining volume of cases would have risen. In fact, the opposite occurred. The logical conclusion was that most claimants who would have succeeded in the past had been deterred from claiming: a denial of justice.

As an advisor in the past four years, many times I’ve given advice to clients on employment issues. They had a valid claim against a rogue employer who has cheated them out of money or discriminated against them. But when told of the fees, they decide not to proceed. Very often this is simply that they cannot afford the money. Sometimes they’re advised to sue in the county court instead, because this is cheaper. This was correct advice, but absurd when you consider that the Employment Tribunal system was created as a better-matched and less intimidating way than the courts for mistreated employees to seek justice.

Praise to Unison

Unison bannerSo I was delighted to see the news that Dave Prentice and the Unison union have persevered in their legal fight against tribunal fees – and won. The Supreme Court ruled that fees were a denial of justice and were unlawful. The decision of the five judges was unanimous. Grayling’s policy changes when Justice Secretary have been ruled unlawful before. But this time, the Supreme Court went further. In one paragraph of their ruling, they effectively lectured the Government on some basic truths about our constitution. It’s worth reading in full (the emphasis is mine):

  1. At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.

Now, that’s basically what’s called a bollocking! Call it teaching grandmother to suck eggs, if you like. The “enemies of the people” (Daily Mail style) yesterday called out those who are the real enemies of the people in this case: the Government in trying to defend the unlawful actions of an earlier Tory Justice Minister. The Court ruling has been called a “lesson in patriotism” in a powerful article by Afua Hirsch in today’s Guardian.

Justice for All

So, the Mail did what it always does: take a news story and spin it to the opposite of the truth. It again confirms their attitude to the law. It’s fine when it’s used by the rich and powerful to bully and intimidate others into getting their own way. It’s the law as a plaything of the rich: super-injunctions to suppress awkward facts and expensive divorce settlements for spouses of billionaires. But the law as a bulwark to protect the rights of the poor and exploited? No way. There’s a word for this attitude: feudal.

And as for my irritation at the two days I spent in Croydon all those years ago? Put it down as the necessary price to pay to protect those freedoms we have gradually wrested from those in power, over the past 800 years since Magna Carta.

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One Penny Has Dropped

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have banged on many a time about economic policy: Free Market Fundamentalism, as I call it. It is one of the two major delusions from which the country is suffering. We have suffered the consequences of a fatally flawed view of human economic behaviour for over 35 years.

Over a similar time frame, a second delusion has taken hold, growing to overwhelm us in a moment of supreme folly on 23rd June last year. It is the delusion that Britain would be better off outside the European Union. To make my position absolutely clear: it is 100% certain that every possible outcome from EU trade negotiations about the UK’s trading position outside the EU will be worse than the status quo. Every option would be worse; it’s only a matter of “by how much”.

To overcome a delusion, first the “penny must drop” to the sufferer that they are mistaken. No progress can be made during the period of denial. As I said in my recent post, Take Back Control, I believe that, at long last, the penny has dropped for an increasing number of Britons that there’s something fundamentally wrong about our economic system. The Labour Party get this; the Tories not, so far. That’s bad news for the Tories and good news for those of us who think that they’ve been wrong all these years. But we also need the second penny to drop: that staying in the EU is the UK’s best conceivable option. That penny hasn’t dropped – yet.

Project Fear Revisited

There was a whole load of bollocks spoken by the Remain Tories, and in particular by Osborne and Cameron, during the EU referendum debate last year. Their opponents, with some justification, called it “Project Fear”. (In comparison, the Leave campaign should be dubbed “Project Outright Lies”.) It was a source of immense frustration that the debate, as reported by the media, was conducted solely by the two opposing wings of the Tory Party (with some vile “sounds off” on the extreme right by UKIP). The economy didn’t crash and burn within days of the referendum result (although the pound did drop sharply); its death was always going to be a slow, lingering one, barely started even now.

The 2017 Election: The First Penny

Of the two delusions mentioned above, the result of the 8th June general election shows, I think, that the first penny has dropped. Increasing numbers of voters are sick of austerity and can see for themselves that it’s not working. For obvious reasons, the rich tend to save a higher proportion of their income than the poor. By taking money from the poorest, Osborne plunged the economy back into a needless recession in the early 2010s, reducing his tax income, increasing the need for benefits and made his target of balancing the books harder to achieve.

Theresa May on election night
May on election night

The effects of the remorseless downward pressure on public sector expenditure (instead of, for example, raising taxes on the wealthiest) didn’t really seem to have much effect at first. But by now, the cumulative effect is apparent in many different places. The struggles to maintain standards in the NHS have been all to plain to see for some time now. Then teachers and parents are concerned about the cuts to school budgets and their effect on class sizes, curriculum options and much more. More recently, damning evidence of the collapse in discipline in our prisons was made clear by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. The fact that not a single youth custody centre is safe to house young offenders is a spectacular disgrace for a relatively rich country in the 21st century. Police, firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses have rallied round time and again in recent months dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Failure over seven years to give them a decent pay rise is increasingly seen as unfair. And squeezed living standards from rising inflation are affecting all but the very richest in work and those on benefits alike. I could add low growth, record levels of personal debt and of the trade deficit, as well as many other economic weaknesses.

The delusion that Free Market Fundamentalism creates a strong economy is falling away fast. That leaves one more penny to drop.

The Second Penny: EU Membership

One year on, there’s still a large minority of the population who feel justified to have voted Leave last June. These include several members of Theresa May’s cabinet, including those most involved in negotiating terms for our departure. But with no overall strategy from May, even they are disagreeing among themselves about how hard a task they’ve set themselves. The most delusional, Liam Fox, said negotiating a trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. David Davis, by contrast, described it as more difficult than a moon landing: “Half of my task is running a set of projects that make the Nasa moon shot look quite simple,” he said. I’m glad to see that he turned up in Brussels this week fully briefed and prepared:

David Davis empty desk
Look no notes!

About 45% of the UK’s trade is within the EU. The 27 countries share culture, values and ideals most like our own. (For example, the USA is, culturally and in social attitude, a very alien place indeed!) Fox and his ilk seem to think the world outside the EU is just waiting for us to leave so they can start doing a whole lot more business with us. In practice, Fox is swanning around the world, at our expense, trying to do business with a combination of the “old Commonwealth” (i.e. the white folks) and a bunch of despots and human rights abusers. With the latter group, the talk seems mainly about selling them arms. Just like old times in the Ministry of Defence, mixed with nostalgia for the days of the Empire.

The likelihood that such trade could fill more than a tiny fraction of that lost within Europe is zilch. Nada. Nothing. How long will it take and how much damage will be done to our economy and to our national reputation before the second penny drops? I hope it’s soon, for all our sakes.

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Schadenfreude

Were you still watching on election night 1997 when Stephen Twigg defeated Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate? My late wife and I were. Great, wasn’t it? We went to bed shortly afterwards with tired smiles and a feeling of contentment.

Twigg defeats Portillo 1997
That Twigg defeats Portillo moment

Talking of wives, my current wife is a real dog lover and she wouldn’t knowingly harm any animal. And yet, she laughed uncontrollably at the sight of a small, cute dog being accidentally thrown into a cement mixer in a famous sitcom scene.

Binky in the Mixer
In goes Binky

Schadenfreude, that most guilty of pleasures, seems to affect us all, no matter how well-intentioned we claim to be. Taking pleasure out of someone else’s misfortune has been the stock-in-trade for moral tales and for comedy down the centuries. From the comeuppance of Shylock to the humiliation of a self-important Basil Fawlty, the audience is invited to feel good or to laugh at witnessing the suffering of a rogue or buffoon.

As a comedian once said, “I wonder what the German word for schadenfreude is”. Although we have no everyday word in the English language, there’s a whole host of idiomatic phrases to choose from. “Cut down to size”, “got what (s)he deserved”, “the higher they climb, the harder they fall”, “taste of your own medicine”, “(s)he had it coming” all spring to mind. Clearly our in-built sense of justice often includes a levelling down as well as a levelling up.

So, why do human beings, even quite moral ones, exhibit schadenfreude? An interesting article in Psychology Today attempts to answer this question. A key point is this: “people … have a fundamental need to believe that the (social) world is a just place and that this belief is functionally necessary for them to develop principles of deservingness”. That’s fine, I get that… except that it doesn’t explain the joy at poor Binky’s fate. Of course, the core theme of the sitcom was that most British of subjects: embarrassment and the gradations of the English class system. But I think we’ll keep our dog walking away from building sites, just in case.

The chocolate orange

Chocolate orange
Chocolate orange

Right now, the UK government is in a state of collapse. In a few short weeks, the evil hubris of “crush the saboteurs” has given way to minority government, bribes to the DUP, open warfare in the Tory party, a breakdown in Cabinet discipline and the PM’s plea to opponents for ideas. The head of the National Audit Office speaks of disarray between Government departments, a lack of policy-making capacity and the real danger of the UK’s approach to EU exit negotiations falling apart “like a chocolate orange”.

The government’s official economic watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, said this week that the UK economy was in a worse shape now to cope with economic shocks than it was in 2007, before the global crash. Exiting the EU on May’s proclaimed terms will be the biggest economic shock since World War II. The sheer size and breadth of the mess is becoming clearer by the day. So much for Tory austerity policies. Anyone brave – or insane – enough to say “strong and stable” one more time?

Ode to Joy?

Of course, I can’t help at times feeling some guilty pleasure at all this misfortune falling on a group of people who felt they were entitled to rule for generations. In my heart, my dream scenario – or, perhaps more accurately, the most benign nightmare scenario – would be this. May and her ragbag of incompetents and fantasists struggle on long enough to damage their reputation and electability for a generation. But in so doing, they don’t do so much damage to our economy and national interests that we – and especially the poor and most vulnerable – are harmed irreparably for decades to come.

My heart may wish for such an outcome, but my head says the chances of this happening are vanishingly small. Perhaps I’d better stop my indulgence in schadenfreude pretty damned soon. But, hey, I guess the odd snigger from time to time might still be allowed.

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Take Back Control

Arguably, the most successful soundbite of last year’s EU referendum campaign was “take back control”, used by the Leave team. It was delusional, of course, based upon the ridiculous idea that Little Britain could be master of its own destiny outside the EU. The realpolitik of 21st century capitalism means that the mega-rich and multinational corporations are free to move capital – and jobs – around the globe. This makes pure fantasy the idea that one medium-sized country can be in control. Standing together with like-minded countries in a bloc like the EU gives some chance of the needs of the people winning – sometimes – against the rich, powerful and footloose. On our own, forget it.

But the idea – and the phrase – caught the imagination of many, assuming they didn’t think too deeply about it.

Ironically, one year on from the referendum, the idea of taking back control – in a different sense from before – is really beginning to catch on. And, this time, it’s a development of which I approve. Two recent events best illustrate my point.

The 2017 General Election

Once again, the pollsters got it wrong. The Tories’ loss of overall majority came as a surprise and, this time, a pleasant one for me. (The shocks of 1970, 1992 and 2015 were three times too many for one lifetime!) There genuinely seem to be signs of change. Specifically, I mean signs that more and more voters are seeing the Tories and their austerity agenda in its true colours: as a way of reinforcing the power and wealth of a minority at the expense of everyone else.

People are beginning to see the value of the public sphere: the schools, hospitals, police, firefighters, public infrastructure, clean air, enforcement of reasonable regulations for safety in employment, and many more. It extends to an appreciation of the longer-term strategic view that public ownership can give to areas such as blue-sky R&D and in the energy sector.

For three and a half decades, government and economists have asserted the supremacy of free market fundamentalism. They assert that free markets, unfettered by government interference, will produce the best of all possible outcomes. For the poor, their concerns and fears are vilified or ignored. At long last, an increasing number of people see that assertion for what it is: a lie.

They can see with their own eyes that the average worker is still worse off than before the 2007-8 global financial crash. They can see the rise of low quality, insecure jobs and the sham self-employment. They see ruthless employers increasingly treating their workforce with contempt. Too many people feel they have no control over their lives. Job insecurity means they cannot make sensible plans for the future, about basic matters such as housing and starting a family. For the rich, every whim and opinion is indulged and flattered.

The recent general election result showed that more people have seen through the Tories’ lies. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally gave them a real choice: a chance to get back some control. Emphasis on workers’ rights and the renationalisation of railways and utilities is seen to make sense. Private utilities casually rip off their customers – their nationalised forebears never exploited them in that way.

The Grenfell Tower Tragedy

And then came that most unimaginably awful, utterly avoidable tragedy: the Grenfell Tower fire. Four weeks on, those who have lost their homes and those who have lost loved ones still haven’t had their questions answered. Still the authorities, above all Kensington and Chelsea Council, are failing in their most basic obligations to the residents. Most of the support and help for practical, emotional and psychological issues still seem to be given by volunteers and community organisations. Yet Kensington and Chelsea is the UK’s richest authority, with nearly £300m in its reserves. The total breakdown of trust between the state and the citizens of the area is palpably raw and tragic. The Grenfell residents aren’t being given even the basic answers to help begin a grieving process and to rebuild their lives. The lack of control they have over their present and future lives screams out every minute of every ghastly day.

Out of Control

Whilst in no way comparable, I remember clearly the moment I found out my first wife, in her mid-40s, had been diagnosed with cancer. There was an overwhelming sense that our lives had, very suddenly, got totally out of control. Over the following few days, through our own research and with good support from medical staff answering our many questions, we began to feel better able to cope. The cancer hadn’t gone away, but we had more information to begin to make sense of it all and gain a feeling of control once again.

It would be simply wrong, impertinent and insulting to the Grenfell victims to say I know how they feel. But it is, after all, a defining feature of being human that we try, however inadequately, to empathise with those who are suffering. All I can say with any certainty is that it must be massively, massively worse than what I went through – unimaginably so.

A Turning Point?

It feels like the Grenfell fire and its aftermath is a turning point: I really, really hope it is. Grenfell, or something like it, is what happens after thirty-five years of inhumane economic policy, treating humans simply as economic units. And, as economic units, the rich and powerful are treated with utmost respect; the poor and vulnerable with utmost contempt. I sense that people really have had enough, at last.

The hope now is that we can be led by people with the vision to plot a new path to the future. The Labour Party manifesto for the recent election was a good start. Jeremy Corbyn seems to have found his feet. He clearly recognises that, if everyone is to “take back control” of their lives, most of us, at some time need the state to be there to lend a helping hand. This help takes many forms: benefits, doctors, nurses, firefighters, a decent job with a predictable wage or basic needs like gas and electricity from an organisation that doesn’t try to rip you off all the time.

The Tories won’t get us there. Several members of May’s cabinet are professed admirers of Ayn Rand and have called her most famous novel an “inspiration” – here’s one example. Free Market Fundamentalism, that cruel and heartless creed of greed, is the natural brainchild of Rand’s cold-hearted and false assumptions about human behaviour. It must stop. All the people of Britain, poor and rich, must be given the opportunity to take back control of their lives. Starting now.

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The Koalition of Kaos

Recent evidence has emerged about a forgotten civilisation during the second century CE in the eastern Mediterranean. Historians and Archaeologists have been engaged in a five-year study on the small island of Kaos (capital: Mayhem). The inhabitants of the island were mainly Greek speaking, although there was also wide use of the Latin tongue, as we shall see soon.

Map of Kaos and Antikos
Sketch map of Kaos and Antikos

A short distance to the north-east of Kaos was the even smaller island of Antikos (capital: Duplicity), so called because the ideas of the Antikossians seemed very old-fashioned to the Kaotics.

The Tribes of Kaos and Antikos

bull maskKaos at this time was a warlike place, with tribal rivalries and skirmishes all over the island. The largest and most warlike tribe was called the Tauries. This was because, when they went into battle (which was often), they wore masks in the shape of bulls’ heads on their faces, to make them look more ferocious.

Almost as large a tribe were the Lavories. They saw themselves as morally superior to the Tauries, partly because they weren’t quite as warlike in their approach. In battle, they demonstrated the purity of their thoughts by each wearing a soap-on-a-rope around their necks. This was less effective as a battle tactic, but the Lavories all agreed they felt better for doing it.

There were a few smaller tribes, too. No one was really sure what the Liberalies stood for, but everyone agreed they were very nice people. There is some sketchy evidence that an extremist, fringe breakaway group from the Tauries existed for a time. Called the Kippies, a combination of inbreeding and infighting led to their extinction almost as soon as they were formed.

Confined to the north of the island, the Peskies were so named as all their leaders were named after fish. Across the waters in Antikos, two arch-rival tribes occupied the north-east corner of the island: the Dupies and the Shinbonies. The Dupies were usually known by their nick-name: the Little Willies. This was because the Dupies worshipped an ancient, but tiny, god called William, who was only the size of an orange. The Dupies wanted to be considered part of Kaos, whilst the Shinbonies thought they should all join in with the larger tribe in the south of Antikos: the Begorrahs.  (Cultural note: lazy racial stereotyping was all the rage in the 2nd century, under the so-called Davidson Doctrine. This was named after Jacobus Filius Davidus, a first century CE troubadour who lived under the shadow of a bigger tree than anyone else. )

Although the Tauries constituted well under half the population of Kaos, they generally held the upper hand in ruling over the affairs of the island. Although all the other tribes, except the Dupies, broadly agreed on matters of policy, the Tauries successfully applied a game of “divide and rule” to get their own way.

Kaos Weaponry

Weapon of Moss Destruction
WMD

It has already been emphasised that the Kaotics were a warrior race. Their weapon of choice was the Three-Pronged Fork. This was originally developed as an ideal tool for scraping the fast-growing moss from the rocks and cliffs of the island. During the wet season, these mosses grew rapidly, blocking tracks and access around the island. During an early skirmish between rival clans, the Kaotics soon discovered that Three-Pronged Forks were also good for killing people, and their use as weapons quickly spread. They came to be known as the Weapons of Moss Destruction.

The Elders of the tribes often told of the times of the Great Manufacture of the Three-Pronged Forks. The Forks were made of iron, and there were no deposits of iron ore on Kaos itself. Instead, the ore needed to be imported from the island of Ferros, a two-day journey away by their primitive sailing boats. The Ferrotics were a hard-nosed people, always ready to strike a hard bargain. Their island was rocky and barren, and their crops often failed. The only commodity they would trade for their iron ore was food, and lots of it. Just before the Great Manufacture of the Three-Pronged Forks, the Kaotics had traded so much of their own food with the Ferrotics that there was widespread famine throughout the island. Many people, mainly women and children, died. The women, of course, didn’t matter. (Cultural note 2: misogyny at this time was, of course, de rigueur.) But the sorrow at the death of so many children stayed in the people’s memories for many generations.

The Dirk

dirk
Dirk

One tribe, the Peskies, had adopted a different weapon from the rest: the dirk. This was named after the legendary Thespian called Dirkus, an erstwhile leader of a troupe of travelling players, who was born in the north of the island. He was often known – particularly by the womenfolk – as Dirkus Beauregardus, on account of his legendary good looks.

His troupe, the Circus Dirkus, travelled widely in the Mediterranean, performing their plays. (Eat your heart out, Will Shakespeare! Dirkus had a “Theatre in the Round” a millennium and a half before you were strutting your stuff in the Globe.)A favourite play was Medicus et in Domo, in which the great actor played Hippocrates, the legendary First Doctor. (No, it wasn’t William Hartnell.)  For stage props, they had the surgical knives used by Hippocrates, which were soon nick-named “dirks” after the great actor.

Many a fair lady fainted at the sight as Beauregardus pulled out his dirk on stage and held it aloft, glinting in the evening Mediterranean sunlight. (Cultural note 3: It’s well known that, in Classical Greek theatre, gratuitous smutty jokes were hugely popular. Just ask Euripides. “Euripides, I rip-a yours!” Who could forget – or even remember – the classic line by Chico in the Marx Brothers’ tribute to Classical Greek Theatre, A Night at the Hippodrome?) But I digress… (Cultural note 4: Whilst performing a particularly tricky surgical procedure, Hippocrates once pricked his thumb on his surgical knife. This was the moment of creation of the world-famous Hippocratic Oath. Yes, yes, I know! What did you expect? Wit and sophistication? We are talking second century here!) Dirkus died whilst on tour in Venice. Meanwhile, back on Kaos…

On Land and Sea

At first, the inter-tribal battles took place on land. The various tribes fought and slew each other with their Three-Pronged Forks, trampling all over the crops as they fought. The women of the island, who did all the hard work in the fields, cooked all the meals and cleaned and tidied up after their menfolk, got extremely annoyed by this needless destruction. So, gradually over time, the battles took place more and more in the shallow waters all around the island. They found their Three-Pronged Forks were quite good for catching fish, too.

The Tauries, at great expense, commissioned two great galleons with giant oars and galleys filled with captured slaves from the other tribes. The galleons were to transport the weapons to different parts of the shoreline for battles. But they found they only had enough Three-Pronged Forks to fill one galleon. Worse still, prolonged use of the Three-Pronged Forks in the salty seawater had gradually corroded the iron. Bits started falling off the now-rusty Forks and they became less and less effective as weapons. The Tauries were strongly committed to replacing the Forks. The people of Kaos were fearful of this. The great famine following the last trading with Ferros was still strong in their memories. All the other tribes, apart from the Little Willies, were against the idea of renewing the Three-Pronged Forks.

The Vote

The Tauries called all the people together, to get them to vote on who was best to lead them, thinking that they would consolidate their position once and for all. Unfortunately for them, the vote was ambiguous and left them weaker than before. It’s here that the historical record gets patchy. It seems that there was some other momentous decision that the leaders of Kaos had to make. What is known is that the Tauries themselves split into two camps, known as Brexitus Maximus and Brexitus Minimus.

Some historians believe this was to do with some Alliance with other islands in the area. But no record has ever been found of any plan by the Tauries to deal with this issue. One dissenting historian also believes that the Tauries were so desperate that they were led for a period by a woman! An even more unlikely tale is that the woman tried to cling on to power by holding fast on to the Little Willies. But mainstream opinion is that such tales are simply too implausible to be true.

Whatever the cause of the split, the Tauries were fatally weakened. This created the opportunity for the other tribes (except the Dupies) to forge an alliance and take over the running of the island. This alliance was known as the Koalition of Kaos.

The Aftermath

Notwithstanding the lack of information about the true meaning of the mysterious “Brexitus”, archaeological records are clear as to what happened next. Under the rule of the Koalition of Kaos, the renewal of the Three-Pronged Forks was cancelled, famine was averted, and peace and tranquillity reigned over the Island of Kaos for the next two hundred years. Such a long period of peace was, of course, of absolutely no interest to historians. This probably explains why the history of this early civilisation had fallen into obscurity for well over 1500 years.

(Literacy SATs Question: Why is Koalition spelt with the letter K? The answer is because the people of Kaos were GreeK, but they did not actually live in GreeCe. I would have thought that was obvious. You clearly haven’t been paying attention! Please see me after school for a remedial session of “Spelling and Punctuation for Idiots”. )

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