Where We Are
The most specific, outright lie during the EU referendum campaign was Leave’s claim there’d be £350m a week extra to spend on the NHS if we left the EU. The more strategic, and in some ways bigger, lie was that was some kind of Promised Land once we were free of the EU’s “shackles”.
This is the third of three posts planned last month. The first, Changing Times, Changing Norms, was essentially backward looking through my life, reflecting on changes in social attitudes over that time. The second was set in the present: The Modes of May gives my assessment of Theresa May’s performance as Prime Minister. This third post attempts to take a peek into the future, or at least the next couple of years.
This post has been split into three parts. This is part 1, parts 2 and 3 will follow tomorrow and the day after
This is not a prediction or a forecast: only an idiot would attempt such a thing in theses unpredictable – and indeed unstable – times. No, it’s more a collection of hopes and aspirations, a sort of “cards on the table” wish list on a possible way ahead for the UK.
The UK’s Pressing Priorities
Any detached, but thoughtful, observer of the UK from the outside could draw up a list of the most long-term, strategic, pressing problems facing Britain today. I will attempt to list them here, in no particular order:
- Housing: the country has a systemic, serious shortage of genuinely affordable housing , especially to rent. Private sector rents are too high and tenants’ security of tenure is too low. Thatcher started the problem in the early 1980s, giving council tenants the right to buy at huge discounts and shackling local authorities’ powers to build sufficient replacements. My 2015 post A House Is Not a Home displays my concerns.
Since 2010, successive governments have simply made matters worse with ill-thought-out schemes which generally just push up house prices and waste public money. The stupendously high house prices in London add to the problem: London property is a major source of money-laundering by oligarchs and mafia types, not least from Russia – many of whom have donated vast sums of money to the Tories.
In true Orwellian fashion, the Tories “solved” the problem of the lack of affordable housing by redefining the word ”affordable”. The whole mindset on housing needs to change from a “property-owning democracy” – Thatcher’s cynical ploy to turn Council tenants into Tory voters – to the idea of the right for everyone to have a decent home: rented or not. The solution is obvious: build more council houses which are genuinely affordable to ordinary people!
- Big Data: a very dangerous development is the late realisation of the power and gross negligence of Big Data mining companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, etc.), whose only focus has been profit maximisation. Facebook, for example, is now only taken action, two years after suspecting a breach of data protection laws, because they have been caught out.
The ease with which extremist groups, funded secretly, have misused information without prior consent for political ends is deeply troubling and a threat to the foundations of democracy itself. Putin and the Russian state are just one of the players here, but a convenient distraction for the UK government. It’s companies like Cambridge Analytica we should be more worried about: their alleged meddling in the 2017 Kenyan general election being the most recent revelation. I’ve noticed a tendency for the Chief Executives or founders of these companies hold extreme libertarian views.
- Gig Economy: Poor job security and sham self-employment, zero hours contracts and the rest are destroying the dignity of jobs for the poorest members of society. So far, it’s voluntary groups, some trade unions and sympathetic lawyers who are using the justice system to fight back. Whole communities, not least former mining villages in the Midlands and North, were left to rot: drugs, despair and crap jobs are the legacy.
- Unbalanced Economy: Germany ‘s manufacturing sector represents 23% of GDP; in the UK it’s just 11%. That’s a political choice made by Thatcher and her successors for 35 years. The gross bias towards London and the City finance sector in particular is a hallmark of UK government thinking since the 1980s. Blatant conflicts of interest abound, particularly around the “Big Four” accountancy firms, who get government contracts and secondments and advise powerful corporations on ever-more sophisticated tax avoidance schemes. My 2015 post, The City: Paragon or Parasite? explains that practically all City innovation in the last 35 years benefits only those working in finance and act as a powerful engine of inequality. Two Gamblers and a Pint of Lager tries to present the degree of imbalance in more human terms.
- Extreme Inequality: The failed economic doctrine of Free Market Fundamentalism is a subject I’ve returned to many times: Two Castles (part 2) is a good place to start. Inequality Damages Your Wealth, also from 2015, explores this in further detail. Inequality destroys the very fabric of a civil, and civilised, society.
- Education: Ludicrous meddling in education by successive ministers has seriously damaged the education system for a generation. Gove, self-evidently, was the worst, speaking as a school governor of 30 years’ standing, I have seen the damage close up.
Here are two examples from my personal experience. Firstly, Gove’s reforms left Local Authorities with a range of statutory responsibilities whilst removing many of the powers and controls over local school policy. This was a personal lament from a former Chief Education Officer, who needed to use cajoling and persuasion to do the best for the pupils in her authority. We’re still a LA school: we toyed with the idea of academisation, together with other local schools. We encountered the entirely undemocratic Regional Schools Commissioner, appointed by Central Government, together with the sinister Headteacher Board, a group of selected heads with views sympathetic to Central Government policy. Their meetings are held in secret and no minutes are published.
How about that for a Westminster power grab? The resultant fragmentation has left education is one hell of a mess: it will take a generation to repair the damage.
And don’t even get me started on May’s insane ideas about grammar schools: in 2016, I combined a debunking of this myth with a tribute to the reggae superstar, Prince Buster in Madness, Madness, I Call It Madness. And, of course, government policy is way out of line with public opinion, with 72% of us opposed to selection of pupils on the basis of their parents’ religious views.
- Heal the Divisions in Our Society: Cameron’s disastrous mistake in calling a referendum on EU membership has created a poisonous rift in our society. It has encouraged racists, xenophobes, violent far-right groups and the rest to feel the stamp of government approval; think, for example, of the murder of Jo Cox MP. Since 2010, the government has steered two major Government Departments in a direction far removed from humane values.
The Home Office, particularly in regard to matters of Immigration, lost touch with humane values years ago: here’s a recent example to add to the list of revelations. Perhaps that’s why May stayed so long as Home Secretary: it suited her authoritarian, Little Miss I-Know-Best mode. And the DWP, driven by Osborne’s and Cameron’s misleading propaganda on benefit fraud has plenty of examples of inhumane treatment. Here’s a recent example: 70,000 disabled benefit claimants to be repaid £340m of underpaid benefits owing to the DWP’s “errors”.
So, quite a list: housing, big data, gig economy, unbalanced economy, extreme inequality, education, divisions in society. All but one of these are wholly a matter of domestic government policy.
The exception is the threat to democracy caused by misuse of information by companies analysing data sold to them by the likes of Facebook. It’s screamingly obvious that the best way to do this is collectively between countries with shared values. The EU has a good past record on this, having given large fines to Google and Microsoft and forced mobile phone companies to abolish roaming charges across the EU. And the EU is planning an interim, and slightly crude, new tax based upon turnover by country, to begin to address the scandalously low effective tax rates paid by big data companies. It will effectively add about 3% to their tax burden – a modest start. Don’t expect any help from a Trump government with an “America First” policy and a minimal regulation cultural bias.
A quote from a Rafael Behr article in the Guardian on Tuesday sums it up nicely: “There is no substantial problem facing Britain to which leaving the EU offers an effective remedy”. Quite.
The Tories Must Split
Healthy democracies require a healthy government and a healthy opposition. Right now, the Labour Party is in fine health, with rising membership – the largest in Europe – whilst the government is simply toxic. By this I mean, the cancer of the “crazies” (described in my recent Call It Out: Crazies! post) on the one hand and the 17th century moral philosophy of the DUP have trapped Theresa May in a pincer movement of intolerance and lunacy.
It must surely be only a matter of time for a sufficient proportion of the British public realise what a catastrophic mess the Tories (and, to an extent, the cowardice of New Labour) have made of this country since Thatcher was elected – and all based on an economic dogma based upon a false premise about human motivation. (To summarise the false premise, the only thing that drives us is pursuit of material self-interest.) In healthy, properly functioning democracies the electorate should punish the Tories big time. I look forward to the May local election results, particularly in Remain-voting London, where I expect the Tories to lose big time to Labour. The Tories deserve to be out of power for at least one, if not two, generations. Their cheerleaders, Murdoch press, Express, Telegraph and, most toxically, the Mail will fight dirtier and dirtier campaigns of lies and distortions. Goodness knows, we’ve seen enough already! (“Enemies of the People”, etc)
Let’s just remind ourselves of a few facts when trying to decide what the “will of the people” actually is, rather than what the Daily Mail says. 37% of voters voted to leave the EU after the most dishonest campaign seen in my lifetime. Evidence is now emerging of shady “pro bono” help by Cambridge Analytica to the Leave.EU camp and UKIP and of overspending by Vote Leave. 34% voted remain – a margin of only 1 million in 40-million electorate. 29% didn’t bother to vote at all. Of those who voted, there were clear Remain majorities in Scotland (62%), Northern Ireland (56%) and Gibraltar (96%). In London, Remain won 60% of the vote – oh and Oxford and Cambridge (70% and 74%), which can, I know, be spun into an argument about elitist vs. ordinary people. So, Theresa May, why did you choose to the most extreme Leave position as government policy and draw up those misjudged red lines? Because you were trapped in a pincer movement, particularly one you had to kowtow to the DUP!
Tomorrow, in part 2, Tribes and Tribulations, I discuss the tribal nature of our two main party supporters and some things that need to change. This covers, in particular comments about BBC News and the NHS. The third part, Getting There, will follow through some sort of vision of a future Britain I would like to see and some hopes and aspirations about how that may happen