My wife finds it hard to believe, but basically I think I’m an optimist at heart. Despite all the setbacks, humankind will get gradually wiser and we will learn how to make the future better than the past. Over the long term, of course.
I occasionally spot news items which seem to confirm, or deny, this belief. Here’s a couple from last month, on both sides of the argument.
A report from the Office of National Statistics states that there has been a 30% drop in the UK’s consumption of “stuff” between 2001 and 2013. By “stuff” they mean items such as food, fuel, metals and building materials. Some at least of this drop is because we have become cleverer and / or frugal in manufacturing items. For example, much less metal is now used in building a washing machine. Music downloads have replaced vinyl LPs and CDs.
The optimist’s view is that, perhaps, as western consumer societies mature, we choose to buy fewer “things” and instead spend our money on less tangible leisure activities. If this is so, there is a better potential for the sustainability of our lifestyles and more hope for the future of our finite planet. Environmentalist critics say that the ONS figures are flawed as they do not properly take into account how we, as a country, import our environmental damage, for example through imports of manufactured goods from China. Nevertheless, there is at least some evidence of a glimmer of hope for the future.
Beyond Our Means?
To temper my optimism was another story from the same day’s newspaper. The Bank of England reported the biggest rise in consumer borrowing for a decade. Borrowing rose by 9.1% in the 12 months to January. Whilst this has a positive impact on economic activity in the short term, the medium-term implications are more troublesome. A consumer debt spokesman forecast a 17% rise in unsecured debt defaults by 2020. A professional economic forecaster said mortgage-to-income ratios are at record levels. The outlook, when interest rates eventually start to rise, looks decidedly dodgy.
My principal concern is more basic. We Brits are currently living beyond our means. We are repeating the circumstances which led to the 2007-8 crash – only more so. It was excessive consumer debt which got us into this mess in the first place. The resultant bad debts threatened banks and so the government bailed them out, effectively “nationalising” the debt. Britain is uniquely vulnerable to the next global crash. We have an exceptionally lopsided economy. We have too much dependence on financial services – spectacularly so – and too little in other sectors, especially manufacturing. Osborne has done nothing in the last 6 years to correct this imbalance. His policies have, if anything, made matters worse.
Think of the tower in a game of Jenga. If the size of the base represents the size of the national annual economy, our speculative trading in the City would be a tower nearly 160 bricks high. Osborne is ideologically committed to removing as much regulation as possible – like removing the lower bricks, one by one, in Jenga. One small nudge (financial shock) and the whole teetering pile crashes to the ground.
So the good news is that we may have taken the first few steps towards a more sustainable future, at least as far as the world’s resources are concerned. But we’re saddled with a government that encourages a “Jenga economy”. Keep smiling…. through gritted teeth!
“There isn’t another government just around the corner, to be frank. Teaching unions have a choice – spend the next four years doing battle with us and doing down the profession they represent in the process, or stepping up, seizing the opportunities and promise offered by the white paper and helping us to shape the future of the education system.” So said Education Secretary Nicky Morgan at a teachers’ union conference at the weekend.
Doesn’t that opening sentence sound rather threatening? It certainly isn’t the words of a government minister open to debate and consultation with the professionals in teaching. It’s just the latest in a long line of statements reflecting an increasingly authoritarian attitude towards the voting public.
The United Kingdom is self-evidently not a fascist dictatorship. The lessons of history and of comparison with some pretty nasty governments around the world clearly confirm that. And yet, and yet… I get increasingly concerned that, step by step, we are sliding slowly away from the wider principles of a liberal democracy. By “wider principles” I mean all those other ways, apart from a cross on a ballot paper every four or five years, which make us “civilized” and “free”.
Here are some other examples of my concern.
In many ways, New Labour started it, after Tony Blair became George W Bush’s poodle after 9/11. I’m thinking in particular of the near miss we had over 42 day detention for “terror suspects”. Britain never went to such lengths during the height of the IRA “troubles” in the 1970s and 80s. A sense of proportion is needed also. The number of us killed by acts of “terror” is minute compared with, say, the 40,000 premature deaths each year due to illegal levels of air pollution. Barak Obama pointed out Americans are far more likely to die in the bath than by a terrorist attack.
For all New Labour’s faults on civil liberties, matters have taken a turn for the worse since 2010 – even more since the last election without the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats (whoever they were).
Rule of Law
Since Magna Carta 800 years ago, the concept of equality under the law has become a bedrock of liberal democratic thinking. During the 20th century, this thinking was gradually extended to international law: the League of Nations, the United Nations, International Criminal Court and the European Council of Human Rights. Despite the fact that this it was overwhelmingly a British creation, the Tories have never liked New Labour’s incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. They are still working on ways of replacing this with a so-called British “Bill of Rights”. This has all the hallmarks of a patrician attitude to rights, gracefully conceded by the elite and gratefully received by the supplicant masses. We await Michael Gove’s proposals…
One sinister attack on this general principle is the proposal to exempt British troops from legal accountability. This proposal seems to flow from a general idea that the British military can do what they like to foreigners in their own countries, with no recourse for victims of abuse. That is not the thinking one would expect from a liberal democracy.
I have written in the past about the distorting effect of so-called “think tanks”, which often act as nothing more than lobbying groups for rich and powerful vested interests. Through the smokescreen of this outrage, the coalition government came up with what its critics have dubbed a “gagging law”. This was carefully drafted to exclude from its effect the “think tanks”, who tend to favour the government line, whilst stifling the more independent minded charity sector. A new clause in agreements for government funding of charities requiring them not to criticize government policy has a similar chilling effect.
Starving Opposition of Funds
The Tories have always held the advantage when it comes to funding. The rich are happy to donate to pursue their interests. Over 50% of their donations come from City types. One counter to this is the so-called “Short money”, which is state funding paid to political parties by a bipartisan-agreed formula. (It has been a long standing convention that the matter of Party funding is agreed between the major Parties.) The government sneaked out a consultation document when Parliament was in recess to cut this money.
The Lords recently rejected another way the Tories are planning to tip the balance of advantage further their way. This is to change the rules for trades unions to collect political donations from their members, the overwhelming majority of which goes to the Labour Party.
Taken together, these changes would make it so much easier for the Tories to outspend their opponents at election time.
Tilting the Balance
Whilst there is some logic to the proposal for redrawing electoral boundaries, the changes will tip the advantage at elections towards the Tories. One argument put forward by the government is to reduce the cost of politics, as the proposal is accompanied by the reduction, from 650 to 600, in the number of MPs. If so, how come Cameron is also planning to stuff the House of Lords with Tory peers at a cost of some £2.6m? This is because there is no longer a Tory majority in the upper House and Cameron has suffered a series of defeats. His anger is that the Lords are not playing their traditional 100 year role of blocking Labour government legislation. It all smacks of Cameron’s usual arrogant assumption of an entitlement to get his own way all the time.
Politics Before Economics
George Osborne has repeatedly used his budgets to set traps for Labour, rather than doing what makes economic sense. But his reputation for his deft handling of the politics is now slowly falling apart. It is deeply worrying that the Chancellor is prepared to play fast and loose with the national economic interest in an endeavour to secure long-term Conservative hegemony.
No Opposition, No Compassion
All of the above add up for me to a truly depressing prospect. For the first time that I can remember, we have a government that seems prepared to do everything in its power to turn Britain into a one-party state, despite its lukewarm electoral support. This piece, written by Nick Cohen, when Ian Duncan Smith was still in post, makes for interesting reading now. Its central thrust still stands. The Tories will occasionally throw some sop to the poor or disadvantaged, for purely short term political gain. But their true aim is to try to remove all obstacles to their staying in power indefinitely. That sounds like a slow slide into some kind of fascism to me.
In 1946, German pastor Martin Niemöller wrote:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
No, we’re not Nazi Germany. But, for goodness sake, we need effective opposition to stop the slide.
Those of you who are old enough will remember the cult 1960s series The Prisoner. Number Six’s famous outburst, shown below, came to mind when I heard about the government’s latest announcement of their education “policy”.
Let me explain…
Parents: You’re Needed! Er, No You’re Not!
On Budget day, we heard from Nicky Morgan’s apparent new boss, George Osborne, that all schools will be forced to become academies. Next day, Education Secretary Morgan abolished the rule which requires schools to have parent governors on their governing bodies. What really matters now, said Morgan, are the skills which individual governors bring. She clearly means skills like finance, marketing, law and so on. Business skills. Hardly surprising: academies are much more like businesses than local authority run schools.
Just five short years ago, Morgan’s predecessor Michael Gove launched his pet project: the free schools programme. One of the selling points was all about parent power. Parents will be free to set up schools and be in the driving seat. Now, suddenly, for no apparent reason, parents are out of fashion. The very people who have a significant stake in a school – the pupils’ parents – no longer have views and inputs that matter. Why the U-turn?
It’s the Ideology, Stupid!
Amid all the current rows about last week’s budget fiasco, IDS versus Cameron and so on, one thing remains constant. Underneath all the differences is a belief shared by all the protagonists in the Tory cabinet. It’s the continuing unshaking faith in free market fundamentalism. (See many of my earlier posts for more on this.) A key token of belief in this faith is that there’s only one motive that matters which drives human behaviour. That’s the pursuit of material self-interest.
Worker / Consumer Factories
Viewed in this light, we can glean the government’s view of the purpose of schools. That’s to turn out obedient, law-abiding consumers: consumers with the work skills to support “UK plc” in its competition with its competitor countries. (Hence the obsession with international league tables.) And consumers whose aspirations are to purchase the goods and services that FMF capitalism produces, thereby increasing the profits of the large corporations who fund the Tory party. In this analysis, a human life can be reduced to a number: the “profit” he or she makes for UK plc. (In other words, the value of their labour minus the value of their goods and services consumed.)
What an empty, amoral, vacuous existence this entails for humanity! Where’s the quality of relationships, the sense of common purpose, the love, the joy of a beautiful sunset or the smell of roses? With schools’ purpose reduced to purely instrumental terms, where’s the value of learning for its own sake – the joy of discovering new things? Where are the rounded human beings of the future, the respect for human dignity? All irrelevant, it seems.
Nicky Morgan worked in corporate law on mergers and acquisitions before becoming an MP. She’s worked at the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills before her education brief. It’s time she tried to understand that brief, to reflect on what it means to be human and what education is for.
My earlier blog post Stuck Inside of Mobile aimed to dispel the myth that grammar schools were an engine of social mobility 40 to 50 years ago. The piece provoked some dissent at the time. New information has just been published in the Observer newspaper which supports my earlier assertion. It also adds a new twist to the tale.
John Goldthorpe is an eminent sociologist from Oxford. Now emeritus fellow of Nuffield College, he is best known for the Goldthorpe class schema, still used as the main classification system for socioeconomic class. Goldthorpe gave a lecture at the British Academy this week on social class mobility. An Observer piece summarizes his position. Goldthorpe’s article encompasses new research by Professor Erzsebet Bukodi at Oxford.
Room at the Top
Goldthorpe’s talk and Bukodi’s research deal with social mobility and the role of education in improving it. Contrary to popular belief, they conclude that social mobility has not reduced over the past 60 years or so. This period was one where access to education, in particular higher education, has expanded enormously. Using his classification scheme, he concludes that the overall rate of mobility has not changed over this period. What has changed are upward and downward components of mobility. 50 to 60 years ago, upward mobility was more frequent than downward, as the number of managerial and professional jobs increased rapidly. In Goldthorpe’s words, there was “more room at the top”.
What’s changed now is that there’s no expansion of top jobs in the economy. People are as much at risk of downward mobility as upward. In fact, it’s worse than this. Technological change and economic policies that export middle-tier skilled jobs (whilst importing the goods produced by them) have hollowed out this medium-skilled sector.
Role of Education
Education is necessary for individuals to aspire to the “better” (and better paid) jobs. But expansion in education alone is not sufficient. For social mobility to improve, Goldthorpe argues, two things must happen. Firstly, the effect of social origin on educational achievement must weaken. Secondly, the effect of educational achievement on social class outcomes must strengthen. Both are needed for the brightest young people to get to the top. At present, too often, it’s the sons and daughters of the richest parents who do so. I can think of a whole load of cabinet figures who confirm this point: supply your own list!
Fear of Falling
With no expansion in jobs at the top, there’s only one way to increase upward mobility. That’s by increasing downward mobility. But therein lies the problem: what Goldthorpe calls “psychological asymmetry”. The theory of “loss aversion” strongly supports the notion that parents are even more concerned about their children avoiding movement down the social ladder than they are about them going up. Pretty much all parents want what’s best for their children. Advantaged parents will use their resources – economic, cultural and social – to give their children a competitive edge. They have the sharpest elbows.
Fixing the Ladder
Over the past 35 years, income inequality has increased. Using the image of a ladder, the distance between top and bottom and the spacing between the rungs have both grown. The “hollowing out” of middle-tier jobs means many of the rungs in the middle have broken off. If we want to improve upward mobility, we need to do one, or both, of two things. One is to make it easier to move up and down the ladder. The other is to make more room at the top. To do the first, we need to reduce the level of inequality, narrowing the gaps between the rungs. To do the second, we need to increase R&D investment to expand good, well-paid jobs.
The trouble is, since 2010, we’ve been doing the opposite of this. Tax and spending priorities have favoured the better off. Investment has fallen dramatically and productivity growth has ground to a halt. These have been deliberate policy decisions by a government elected on 37% of the popular vote, run by a party with over 50% of its funding from the super-rich in the City.
Don’t hold your breath: things aren’t going to get better any time soon.
The Competition and Markets Authority don’t get it. (It’s hardly surprising: the clue is in the name). The government doesn’t get it. The “it” in question is having a sane, rational and effective policy for the supply of energy (gas and electricity) in Britain.
Two news items on successive days last week illustrate what I mean.
After an 18 month long investigation, the CMA published its findings this week on the workings of the UK’s energy market and how it affects consumers. They found that 70% of consumers were on their supplier’s standard tariff. They concluded that, by failing to shop around, we were being ripped off to the tune of £1.7 billion pounds per year. Their proposed solution? To create a central industry-wide database of all those consumers too lazy (or busy, confused or with poor life skills) to have changed supplier in the previous three years.
In other words, it’s all those bloody consumers’ fault for not acting in accordance with the laws of free market fundamentalism, our guiding secular “religion”.
My earlier blog post Cat and Mouse explains my views on switching energy supplier. In fact, I did do some research within the last year on other suppliers – I’m currently with one of the oligopolistic “big six”. Living in a rural area, there is no mains gas supply – another example of how our market-based energy supply system has failed to provide a 21st century infrastructure, but I digress. Most deals are for dual fuel supply. It boiled down in practice to a choice between the devil I know and one other company, who could perhaps save me a bit over one hundred pounds a year. I then had an online search of customer satisfaction ratings of the other supplier. To put it crudely, they were crap. I’m fortunate enough to consider that £10 a month is not a big deal when judged against the potential hassle of getting through to the new company if anything went wrong. So I stayed put.
The proposed “solution” to the problem of “too many” people not switching suppliers entirely misses the point. All the companies are in the private sector. Public limited companies have a legal duty to consider returns to shareholders above all other considerations. There’s no real competition: gas and electricity (like water supply and railways) are natural monopolies. In the case of the energy firms, there’s no competition in the core service (the pipes and wires), but only at the periphery in billing and customer service. The only innovation in these has been to make the customer do the work of meter reading and moving to paperless billing.
Worse, the proposal throws up a whole list of new problems. There are 37 current energy suppliers, so there’s the potential for 36 lots of junk mail as competitors try to entice you. How safe is the database from abuse? Past experience of the security of centralised databases is not good, let alone one open to 37 companies. Fraudsters and scam-mongers will see another opportunity to exploit the unaware. The Big Six companies are bound to mount a legal challenge to other companies’ access to their lists of customers. And all because the dogma says competition must work.
There was fresh news in the oh-so-long-running saga about Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. You know, the one where the government has spent years trying to persuade the Chinese and the French state-owned EDF to invest in a massively expensive (£18 billion) and risky project to build two new nuclear reactors at the site.
The project is already years behind schedule. Last month, Chris Bakken, the project director, left his job. A week ago, EDF’s Finance director, Thomas Piquemal, left the company. He was known to be a critic of the Hinkley project. Then EDF’s chief executive threatened to pull out of the project unless the French government gives EDF further financial backing. And all this despite the UK government’s “inducements” (i.e. bribes) include offering the firm a guaranteed wholesale price more than double the market rate.
This project is the familiar tale of companies creaming off all the profits and leaving the taxpayer with all the downside risk. Electricity consumers, i.e. all of us, will pay over the odds for the electricity as a further subsidy. And for nuclear power, the downside risks are horrific. In Japan, five years after the tsunami and meltdown, the area around the Fukushima nuclear reactor is uninhabitable for another 24,000 years.
The Energy Elephant in the Room
For a decade or two, the spare capacity to deal with peak load in a winter cold spell has been getting smaller and small and is now dangerously low. Old, dirty fossil fuel plants and nuclear reactors have been closed own but insufficient new capacity has been built to replace them. Lurches of government policy towards renewals, in particular the Tories short step from “greenest government ever” to “green crap” has further deterred investment. It is likely the lights stayed on this winter only because of
There’s an elephant in this room. Energy supply should be renationalised. There’s a whole load of reasons: here are the most obvious:
The logic of the market does not apply to a commodity (especially electricity) that should be affordable for all, as it is an essential basis of modern life.
Markets are not good at making strategic decisions over the long term. The certainty of consistent government policy and funding are essential.
The private sector shies away from hard to quantify risk, such as with nuclear power.
The nature of energy supply is a natural monopoly, as mentioned earlier.
Monopolies (and oligopolies as we have in the UK) in private hands will always lead to consumers being ripped off (because shareholders take priority over customers).
Private sector pricing logic tends to disadvantage the poor with poor credit ratings or erratic payment histories, leading to increased inequality in net income after essentials.
Naoto Kan, Japanese prime minister five years ago, recently said the plan to build Hinkley Point C “did not make sense”. An industry analyst described it as “insane”. I would extend that description to the whole of UK energy policy. Above all, to the belief that consumers can be bludgeoned into behaving according to the diktats of free market ideology.
If I hear much more of the EU debate filtered through the prism of the rivalry between two old Etonian contemporaries, I shall scream! The slanging match between David Cameron and Boris Johnson ensures that this so-called debate will generate much heat and very little light. What’s more, both contenders have form when it comes to being economical, at best, with the truth.
The art of the spin doctor is not new: it’s been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Exaggeration, misleading emphasis and such have been in the armoury of politicians for a long time. Since 2010, David Cameron has taken this a stage further. I simply cannot remember a time when government ministers, led by the example of the prime minister, have told so many outright lies. Remember, the only career Cameron had before politics was in PR. There’s only one skill working in Public Relations teaches you. That’s the ability to lie convincingly. Putting aside party political differences, Cameron is in a league of his own as the prime minister whom, in my lifetime, I trust least to tell the truth.
The most notorious lie orchestrated by Cameron on taking power was that the 2007-8 economic crash was the fault of the Labour Party. The belief in that lie was the most important reason the Tories won the 2015 election. Of the many other lies, perhaps the most pernicious concern those which demonise the poor. The best example of this genre was the way the level of benefit fraud (actually 0.7% of benefits expenditure) was twisted in such a way that public opinion, on average, believed it to be 25%. The repeated assertions that debt reduction is Britain’s top economic priority and that austerity is the only solution are both lies: actually, they’re both matters of political choice.
And now I find myself on the same side of the fence as Cameron in the June EU referendum. We may be on the same side, but our reasons differ greatly. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. (Perhaps more on this some other time.)
Right up to the time of his carefully timed, much publicised and choreographed announcement that he was joining the “out” camp, Boris Johnson was yelling at all and sundry about how conflicted and agonized he was over the decision. And then – in a flash – he came out full throttle in favour of leaving the EU. That means one of two things. Either he lied when he said he was agonizing over the decision or he is insincere in his passion to leave. Either way, he lied.
A fascinating insight into Johnson’s character was revealed in a Guardian article in late February about the time in the 1990s when Johnson was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels. Over the years, a great many myths have circulated about the EU. Faceless bureaucrats were trying to over-regulate our lives: straight cucumbers, bans on using the word “chocolate” and so on. The myths could be entertaining, sometimes with a tiny grain of truth, but always grossly exaggerated or distorted. It turns out that a great many of the myths at this time came straight from the imagination and pen of… one Boris Johnson. He made them up for fun.
But much more seriously, the image of the EU as a killjoy, humourless and unelected bunch of over-zealous regulators who are tying us all up in red tape was nurtured in these years. This image helps the “outers” in their campaign. Johnson is now able to use the image he helped create to persuade British voters to opt to “leave”.
Other Voices Please!
So far, the debate in the media has been largely portrayed through the opposing (apparent) views of two rivals from privileged backgrounds. Both have an over-developed sense of their entitlement to power. The agenda is set by their respective wings of the Conservative Party. The only other voices to be heard so far are those media heroes and know-alls: business leaders. The experience of Donald Trump surely tells us that, just because you’re very rich or a business leader, does not mean you’re capable of having anything worth saying on the subject.
There are many other people and groups who deserve airtime during the oh-so-long period of debate. The opposition parties for a start. Academics, trades unions (who often fund useful research) and community groups have, so far, been given very little opportunity to join the discussion and, more importantly, set the agenda. One perennially under-represented group in the debate are Britain’s young people. As the referendum decision will have profound effects for years to come, it’s their future, above all, that’s at stake here.
So, starting with the BBC – which, as it says, belongs to all of us – let’s ensure our national debate gives a chance for people from all walks of life to have their say. It’s too important to be settled on the word-playing fields of Eton.
One of the traditional media stereotypes was “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”. He – it was invariably a “he” – wrote letters to the Telegraph or Times. In response to some recent event, the theme of such letters was always one of moral decline, disrespect for authority and such. Sir Herbert Gussett, although not from Tunbridge Wells, plays the same role in the pages of Private Eye. The image is of some retired military type or traditionalist civil servant.
These characters came to mind when I was recently alerted to a fascinating piece of scientific research from 2014. Neuroscientists at the Virginia Tech Research Institute found a close connection between political views and the degree of brain response when shown disgusting images. The more right wing a person’s views were, the more their brains reacted to the images. The team found that they could predict a person’s politics to 95% accuracy by measuring their brain’s response to a single disgusting image. (The full scientific paper can be read on the Current Biology website.)
The team who carried out the research used an MRI scanner to detect brain activity in 83 volunteers whilst subjecting them to a range of images: disgusting, threatening, pleasant, and neutral. They also got each volunteer to complete a questionnaire known to give a standardised measure of political outlook. Systematic differences between liberals and conservatives were only observed for the disgusting images. Clearly, it’s not practical to carry out this experiment routinely on the population at large. So, of what use is this knowledge?
Well, it’s interesting to think around the close association of the apparently rational: political views and the apparently emotional: disgust. Intuitively, it does seem to fit with the intolerance associated with a right-wing position. Examples of such intolerance:
Attitudes to sex before marriage
Children born outside marriage
Same-sex marriages (my view: if you don’t approve, don’t marry someone of the same sex – problem solved!)
Not wearing a poppy for weeks before 11th November each year
Lack of deference to authority
Dislike of the other, e.g. foreigners
Going to the wrong sort of school
And so on. By contrast, a liberal outlook results in a more “live and let live” approach. A clear danger for the left is the paradox that openness to difference tends also to encourage factionalism. The right, on the other hand, generally keep their differences suppressed, or in private.
Nature v Nurture?
Sadly, the research doesn’t really throw any light on the age-old “nature v. nurture” debate. Does being easily disgusted cause someone to be right wing, or is it the other way round? Or is it our environment, or our genes, which influence both?
Tunbridge Wells has a Tory MP. Perhaps a lot of voters there conform to the “Disgusted / Gussett” stereotype, perhaps not. Maybe it boils down to this. It was an interesting research finding, but it raises more questions than it answers. More research, anyone?