Monthly Archives: June 2016

Brexit: The Beginning

I’m planning to write a more reflective piece on recent events in the next day or two. In the meantime, here’s a short post with a few nuggets you may have missed in the mayhem.

The First Four Hours

In the first four hours since the referendum result was declared, the following two things (amongst many others) happened:

  1. Britain slipped from the fifth largest economy in the world to the sixth, as a result of the sharp fall in the value of the pound. France’s economy has now overtaken ours.
  2. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, pledged “up to £250bn”, if needed, to be available to the banking system to maintain the confidence of the markets. Readers might like to compare this figure to the annual £7bn for the UK’s financial contribution to the EU. This equates to just 0.4% of our annual income (GDP). (The Brexiteers’ notorious, lying figure of £350m a week equates to £18bn per annum.)

English Comprehension Test

The following two statements were made by leading politicians on Friday, less than a day after the result:

Statement A: “We end this referendum more divided than when we started it.”

Statement B: “We can now, calmly and united, take our country forward in the spirit of the warm, humane and generous values that are the best of Britain”.

Question: The speaker of which of these two statements is in greater touch with reality?

Oh, and just for information… speaker A was Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party; speaker B was Michael Gove, Lord Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Government, serial liar during the campaign, in charge of our judicial system. (You just couldn’t make it up!)

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This Blinkered Isle

Johnofgaunt
John of Gaunt

This royal throne of kings, this blinkered isle,
This earth of poverty, this seat of wealth,
This other Eton; O, and peasants else.
This fortress built by nature for her self
Against infection by the stranger’s touch.
This scrappy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a sullen sea
Which minds it in the office of a wall
Now under-tunnelled by our neighbour France
To grant temptation to less happier lands.
Th’enfeebled leader “referendum” cedes
To backbench plotters, hatred in their hearts.
With forked tongues dissemblers do declaim
While radiant truth lies strangled in blood’s heat.
Prince Bullingdon did toss a coin to see
Which wind would bring the greater gain to he
Of power, no heed for consequence to us.
False Duncan, and fantastic Master Gove
Join Boris dancing on the grave of truth.
Like witches three, they bubble up a brew
Of false enchantment that wise heads rebuff.
Whilst from the rancid sewer of the mind
Crawls Nige of Dulwich, honour’s breaking point,
His poison brokered into every pore.
Meanwhile, there’s bread and circuses afoot
With England drawing to the second round.
And aged Queen, with ten and four-score years
Distracts the mob with sycophantic cheers.
The long-seen monarch, quizzical of gaze;
For, truth be spoke, she has seen better days.
The wider picture? Well, of nought be said
Spare not a thought for how our votes be cast
Affect upon those others, far and near.
The cursed stranger, crushed by tyrant’s yoke
Once looked this way for brave, inspiring hope.
His gaze averts, his countenance a-dark
Now finds no haven in fair Albion’s arc.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Can raise no greater sentiments than: me.
And decades long of fouling Mail and Sun
Hath leached and bleached the greater self, for shame.
Oh, little isle! Thou canst do more than this!
That England that was wont to inspire others
Hath made a selfish conquest of itself.

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What Sort of People Are We?

The horrible murder of MP Jo Cox has cast a poignant and heartbreaking shadow over the final days in the run-up to the EU referendum. The outpouring of grief and loss from her constituency and in Westminster show just how much she was loved and appreciated and how much she will be missed. It was a timely reminder that politicians – like other human beings – are nearly all good people. Jo, and MPs like her, work hard for their constituents and are driven by a positive desire to make the world a better place. And yet the standing of politicians in general is at an all-time low. It’s surprising how many people say “they’re generally a bad bunch – but mine’s all right”. Look no further than the usual suspects in the press to explain that.

(Incidentally, it was a sadly missed opportunity that the Daily Telegraph was the newspaper that broke the story about MPs’ expenses. The Barclay brothers’ Telegraph clearly had an agenda and spun the story to make all MPs look as bad as each other. This had two advantages to their “we support the Tories but want to push them even further to the right” strategy. Firstly, they knew that Labour supporters would be much less tolerant of such behaviour than Tory supporters, thereby giving the latter an electoral advantage. And secondly, discrediting all politicians further undermines democracy and makes it easier for the Barclays and their like to exercise more de facto political power.)

Project Bigot

But, now back to current politics and the EU referendum. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Jo Cox stands the ultimate in the truly bad politicians: Nigel Farage. Just two hours before Jo Cox was murdered, UK politics sank to a new moral low when Farage stood in front of the now-notorious “Breaking Point” poster. This was a classic piece of political mischief-making straight out of the Joseph Goebbels textbook. There are, indeed, politicians – though thankfully not, in this case, an elected one – prepared to stir up the vilest of human attributes: bigotry, prejudice and barely-disguised racism. The poster was the most cynical misrepresentation of the facts showing a line of desperate people fleeing a war-torn country – none of whom are ever likely to come anywhere near the UK.

In attempting to distance himself from this despicable piece of fear-inducing, rabble-rousing propaganda, Michael Gove protested about how “shocked” he was. And Boris “I don’t really care who wins the referendum as long as it helps my chances to become PM” Johnson similarly distanced himself from it. Who are these people attempting to occupy the moral high ground? They’re leading the official Vote Leave campaign.

That Leaflet

On the morning after Cox’s murder, a small 4-page leaflet, entitled The European Union and Your Family: The Facts, landed on my doormat. It was from the campaign team led by Gove and Johnson. Page 1 contains two “facts” that are both outright lies: the notorious £350 million a week bill for EU membership and the claim that Turkey is lined up to join the EU. Pages 2 and 3 contain 8 bullet points claiming to be facts. Two are repeats of those on page 1. One is broadly true. One quotes the figure of annual migrants from the EU, but fails to mention the number who leave each year, painting a misleading picture. One contains a complete non sequitur about the EU claiming “more control” to “prop up the Euro”. Understand that link? I don’t. One is a misrepresentation of EU and domestic law and makes the usual mistake about the European Court of Human Rights being part of the EU – which it isn’t. The last two are grossly misleading statements about the division of business and expert opinion. Page 4 repeats the lies from page 1, but now represented graphically. It also poses a totally irrelevant question to the one on the ballot paper.

In short, the leaflet is a crock of shit. It plays on the same fears and aims to stoke up similar base instincts that the Farage poster does. The moral ground occupied by the leaflet is barely higher than that of Farage. I disagree with David Cameron on most things, but I salute his robust statement on the BBC’s Question Time that the two “facts” on page 1 of the Vote Leave leaflet and the “threat of an EU army” are just outright lies.

Compare the people in the two camps in the referendum and compare the things they have said during the campaign. There is no moral equivalence. The economic argument has long since been won hands down by the Remain campaign. The so-called “Project Fear” has at least been an attempt to get across some basic information, albeit often in an over-simplified way. But the Leave campaign has been straight lies and personal attacks.

Who Are We?

So, the moral question is: what sort of a people are we British? Do we want to turn our backs on our closest neighbours and shout at them from the outside? (I use the word “closest” both in a geographical and a cultural sense.) A vote to leave would turn Britain into some form of international pariah: the country that abandoned its friends when times were tough. We would forfeit nearly all the moral authority we hold in the world, which currently allows us to punch above our weight on the world stage. In the words of historian Anthony Beevor, we risk becoming “the world’s most-hated nation”.

holding handsAre we as mean-spirited, bigoted, hateful of “the other”, xenophobic and downright misanthropic as you would find in a land created in the image of Nigel Farage? Or do we aspire to the “powerful and compelling humanity” of Jo Cox and the majority of her fellow MPs? I know amongst whom I’d rather be living, come Friday morning.

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A Glimmer of Hope

Readers of my earlier posts will know that I fundamentally disagree with the prevailing economic policy I call “free market fundamentalism”. Well, a new report by the “High Church” of economic policy, the International  Monetary  Fund, gives me some slight hope for a change. The report was written by Ostri, Loungani and Furceri of the IMF’s research department. Its sub-headline states “Instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion”.

To be fair to the authors, they do acknowledge that some reforms under the neoliberal agenda have been beneficial. For example, the increase in global trade and foreign investment has “rescued millions from abject poverty” and helped to transfer skills to developing countries. But the report highlights two specific areas with a far more critical eye.

Free Movement of Capital

The first area concerns the widely adopted policy of removing restrictions on the movement of capital around the world. Proponents of this policy state this enables capital to move to where it will be most productive. But in practice, a great many of these capital flows take the form of portfolio investment or speculative trading. There is no discernible benefit in terms of growth from such flows. What’s worse, there is strong evidence that it leads to much greater instability: “boom and bust”. This instability, in turn, damages growth and hurts poorer people most. In other words, it decreases stability and increases inequality. Increased inequality, in its turn, reduces growth. (See my earlier post Inequality Damages Your Wealth.)

The upshot is that freedom of capital movement does more harm than good.

Incidentally, it’s worth noticing the lopsided nature of Free Market Fundamentalism policy in this respect. Capital is allowed to flow freely across borders; people are not. (Look at the frenzy that the Brexiteers – über-free marketeers to a man – are whipping up about free movement of labour in the EU.) The link to inequality is obvious. The rich have capital to spare to move around the world. The poor have just their own skills, their own labour. Extra freedoms for the former and none for the latter are bound to increase inequality in the longer term.

Austerity

Austerity policy is everywhere: it’s been George Osborne’s mantra for the last six years. Its stated aim of reducing government debt is always used as a cover to shrink the state. The report concedes that reduced levels of debt, all other things being equal, are helpful to growth. But the means of getting there is more damaging to growth than the benefits. It concludes: “Faced with a choice between living with the higher debt—allowing the debt ratio to decline organically through growth—or deliberately running budgetary surpluses to reduce the debt, governments with ample fiscal space will do better by living with the debt.” (The report states that the UK is a country “with ample fiscal space”.)

Two International Institutions

In summary, the IMF said that the discredited policies did not boost growth, that the downside in terms of increased inequality was “prominent” and this in turn damaged growth.

As well as the IMF, the OECD, the other main respected international body on economic matters, also weighed into the subject in February. Its report recommended that countries like Britain should reduce austerity and invest more public money in infrastructure.

The IMF report ends with these words: “Policymakers, and institutions like the IMF that advise them, must be guided not by faith, but by evidence of what has worked.” Quite: the FMF sacred cow is overdue for slaughter.

Sadly, the continuing misfortune for Britain is that we have a government, elected on just 37% of the popular vote, but over 50% funded by City organisations and finance companies – many specialising in the corrosive, speculative end of the business. Cameron and company will continue to take the City’s interests as the same as the nation’s. (My earlier post, The City: Paragon or Parasite? shows those interests are not the same – and more like opposites.) The necessary lessons from this new understanding will be learnt very belatedly, if at all.

light at the end of the tunnel
Light…

But the good news is that the two main economic institutions in the world are now seriously questioning the orthodoxy of the past 35 years’ economic policies. There is a glimmer of hope that, one day, even the British government will realise the errors of its ways. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for the next crash before things start to change.

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Beauty and the Beast

The long and faltering journey of humanity towards what we call “civilisation” has been going on for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of years. Boiled down to its most basic of elements, that journey amounts to this: a struggle between the higher, loftier ideals to which human beings aspire and our darker, baser instincts. On the “good” side, we might place such attributes as compassion, empathy, love, solidarity and the search for peaceful solutions to our differences. The “bad” stuff would include things such as anger, aggression, prejudice, bigotry, disrespect – even contempt, fear and dislike of the “other”, and so on. In short, I’m speaking of the struggle between the beauty and the beast in humankind.

beauty and the beast
Beauty and the Beast

It’s All Beastly

There’s a good reason the EU referendum “debate” has, so far, been such a disaster and a turn-off for the British public. It’s because it’s nearly all been so beastly. The arguments for and against have almost totally been framed in terms of the split right down the middle of the Tory party. Each side has played its big beasts: Cameron and Osborne for “In” and Johnson and Gove for “Out”.

The Remain camp have, indeed, focussed on “Project Fear”, based almost exclusively on the two things Cameron and Osborne understand: financial self-interest and security. The Leavers have banged on about immigration, stoking that most beastly of human emotions: fear of the Other. The Leavers, too, have also thrown quite a lot of numbers around, most of them outright lies, such as the spurious £350m a week figure – for which they have had the strongest possible rebuke from the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority.

And, of course, lurking in the background in the Exit camp, is the figure of Nigel Farage, the embodiment of all the worst and most bestial aspects of human nature. For me, he’s the perfect pantomime villain, the personification of everything I dislike about Britain. (There’s quite a lot about our country I like, too!)

nigel farage beast
Beast!

Where’s the Beauty?

Fiona Reynolds, former director general for the National Trust, wrote an impassioned article in last Thursday’s Guardian lamenting the fact that the narrow pursuit of economic growth had crowded out that oh-so-human quest for beauty in our lives. It’s thought-provoking and worth a read.

Those commentators in the EU debate who have tried to emphasise the positive, uplifting aspects of our EU membership have been at the very margins of the debate. Some scientists have explained how much R&D and new scientific discoveries depend on EU funding. A group of musicians and artists praised EU support for enhancing the cross-fertilisation of ideas in the creative industries across Europe. I blinked and might have imagined it, but I think the Erasmus programme, encouraging cultural and education exchange between students in different EU countries, got a mention, too.

It’s ironic that the only (sort of) positive messaging has come from the Brexit camp: namely, the idea that the British, freed from the shackles of Brussels, will re-emerge and blossom in the brave new world. This idea, relying as it does on a significant air-brushing of our imperial history, is so delusional that I worry for the sanity of those who actually believe it.

Only 18 Days to Go

At the time of writing, there are two and a half weeks left to the referendum. Please, please, is there anyone out there of stature who can extol something of the positive, life-affirming aspects of collaborating, working, dancing, singing, learning and laughing together with other people with something new to offer? There’s a positive tale to tell out there somewhere. It’s still not too late to lift the tone.

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