All posts by Jim Gunther

About Jim Gunther

Husband, father, grandfather, humanist, republican, (very!) amateur anthropologist. Interests: politics, education, ethics, comedy, eclectic music taste. Former corporate manager. School governor, charity trustee, volunteer adviser

Call It Out: Crazies!

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

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

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

Come Fly With Me

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

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

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

The Real Crazies

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

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

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

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

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

So How’s May Doing?

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

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

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The State We’re In

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

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

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

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

We Have No Government

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

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

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

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

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

Theresa May Keeps Sucking Up to Trump

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

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

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

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

The NHS Is In Crisis: I’ve Seen It

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

Having Net Immigration Targets Is Asking the Wrong Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

UKIP Is Falling Apart Before Our Eyes

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

The Tories Will Split

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

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

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

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

A Plea

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

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Otherwise Engaged

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

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

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

Watch this space, I’ll be back soon!

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Two Cancers

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

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

Cancer One

cancer cells

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

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

One Symptom

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

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

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

Cancer Two

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

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

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

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

The Usual Suspects

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

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

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

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

Links Between the Two Cancers

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

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

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

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

Be very afraid.

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Chancellor v Chancer

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

Gordon Brown and George Osborne
Brown v Osborne

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

Personalities

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

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

Rabbits and Hats

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

rabbit in hat
Rabbit!

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

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

The Chancellor

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

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

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

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

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

The Chancer

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

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

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

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

Cameron and Osborne eat pasties
Pasties!

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

Legacies and Might-Have-Beens

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

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

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

 

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Half-Term Report

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

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

Still don’t know? Read on…

Anguish of 1000 Days

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

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

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

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

Minority Report

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

Groundhog Days

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

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

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

Day 508

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

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

Meanwhile, Some Good News

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

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

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Deal or No Deal

One of the key – and undoubtedly most persuasive – points made by those advocating leaving the EU in last year’s referendum campaign was “take back control”. Always illusory in an interdependent world, I want to explore its validity in the context of a future vote in the House of Commons at the end of the 2-year negotiation period. I’ll end up arguing that Parliament compromised its sovereignty when it agreed to hold the referendum in the first place!

Big Ben EU flag
Parliament and the EU

It has been an essential part of our unwritten constitution for over 300 years that parliament is sovereign. This was the point argued by Labour (and a few constitutionally-minded Tories) forcing a concession from the Government for a Commons vote before the Article 50 deadline in March 2019. It feels that this concession was dragged out of Theresa May only on account of the extreme weakness of her position. And as so far reported, May offered only that Parliament will be invited either to accept the agreed deal (if any) or crash out of the EU and trade on WTO terms.

2-Way or 3-Way?

May’s offer, clearly, gives MPs a 2-way choice: deal or no deal. For Parliament to be truly sovereign, reason demands a third option: withdraw from the Article 50 procedure and remain in the EU on current terms. The lawyer who helped draft Article 50 says it’s reversible; others have disagreed. The rabid, irreconcilable Leavers (who have made all the running so far) would argue this third option is politically impossible as it would be denying “the will of the people”. But remember the vote was 37% leave, 34% remain, 29% no vote. So, naturally, I disagree. The will of the people is many things, often contradictory. And David Cameron assured the Commons that the referendum was non-binding on Parliament.

I’ll discuss the political chances of a 3-way vote later; first, let’s discuss the practicalities. Parliament doesn’t do 3-way votes. During voting, MPs traipse through one of two doorways: Ayes and Noes. The whole process, constitutionally and architecturally (two doorways), is binary. Secondly, there’s a whole business of motions and amendments. But, in principle, two votes would be needed: (a) accept or reject the proposed deal and (b) leave on the basis of the deal or no deal (depending on the first vote) or withdraw from the Article 50 process and stay in the EU.

So far, so logical. But, I hear you say, which vote is taken first? Good question, I reply. From a purely logical and practical point of view, it doesn’t matter. But the politics is very different! The deal / no deal vote must come first: putting the status quo against an uncertain alternative is not the action of a politically weak leader.

Spectrum of Choice

We first need to use our logic and reason a bit more to establish the relationship between out three choices. It’s easy to see that two of them: stay in EU and crash out are polar opposites. It’s equally obvious that a deal will sit somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes. Deals always mean compromises. So any agreed deal will have its “Leave-ish” elements and its “Remain-ish” ones. In other words, it won’t satisfy everyone. But will it satisfy anyone?

Let’s explore this. At the two extremes of public opinion, the answer must obviously be “no”. But there is a difference between the two extremes. In my observation, people who most strongly support Remain do so for rational reasons based upon evidence given by (much-derided) experts and most often about the impact on the economy and jobs. At the Leave end, the people (full declaration: whom I called “rabid” earlier!) appear to me to be totally irrational. The desire to leave is driven by a mixture of nostalgia, post-imperial delusion, xenophobia and (for a minority) racism. Plus, of course, a good deal of “fuck you all, no one listens to my – very real – grievances”. It’s no coincidence that the strongest predictor of referendum voting statistically is the amount of education a person received: the more educated, the more likely to have voted Remain.

The important point about this analysis is that only one of these two groups is susceptible to reasoned argument. There is an asymmetrical public order threat lurking behind all this.

Will the Deal Pass the Commons?

The short answer is “no-one knows!” Anyone who claims they can predict this, in the light of recent events, is a fool. But we can put some boundaries around this. (By the way, all this assumes Theresa May will still be PM by the time of the vote – far, far from a foregone conclusion!) Both main parties’ MPs are split on how they voted in the referendum: the Tories roughly equally, Labour with only a few Leavers. Their voters are split too, but with Tories generally more Leave and Labour more Remain. The Lib Dems gained practically no votes in the 2017 general election from their consistent Remain stance. But, come the Big Vote, what then?

Firstly, it will depend on whether May sticks to her guns on offering only one vote: deal or crash out. If she does, many Remain MPs will vote for the deal as the lesser of two evils, even if the final agreement is more Leave-ish than Remain. But the opportunity to possibly bring down the government if the vote goes against the deal will complicate the motives of opposition MPs. And, of course, where the deal sits on the Leave / Remain spectrum will influence MPs’ choices.

On the other hand, if May concedes a second vote up front (and political pressure – Labour plus principled Tory Remainers – may force her hand), the dynamics change. More MPs may choose to reject the deal in the hope of retaining the status quo. But this has its dangers: the “will of the people” argument, clearly present in the Commons vote to nod through the triggering of Article 50 earlier this year, will raise its ugly head with even greater frenzy: the stakes are really high now! So the risks of a crash out may be increased in this case.

Can the Government Survive?

Could May and the Tory government survive a defeat in the Commons on a motion to accept the negotiated EU deal? Probably not. The chances of a fall are greater where May has refused a second vote. The most important, far-reaching plank of government policy by far in my lifetime is rejected by MPs. It’s impossible to see May survive even one day: think of David Cameron on 24th June 2016.

So what happens next? May tenders her resignation to the Queen. She may or may not offer to stay on a caretaker PM. The Queen may or may not accept this offer. Constitutional crisis already! Is there another current Cabinet member who could unify the country and see us through the next critical steps? Obviously not! – just list the names in your head. (And that’s without factoring in how many of the current Cabinet members will have been forced to resign through sexual misconduct!)

So the most likely outcome is another general election – the third in four years. Meantime, the EU clock to 29th March 2019 keeps ticking. Would any caretaker PM want to bind the hands of the next parliament? I hardly think so. The interim PM may well ask the EU to please stop the clock. The EU may or may not agree – but if they do, there’s bound to be a price which ardent Leavers will hate even more. But, in the chaos, that second commons vote (which is now “stay or crash out”) is far from certain to happen at all, whether May had offered it or not.

What’s more, crashing out of the EU whilst there’s no UK government would cause huge disruption – but someone would try to sort out some solutions to keep food and goods flowing, planes flying and so on. Whether it’s a temporary continuation of EU membership or some botched-up set of arrangements, the detail will be agreed between UK and EU civil servants. The UK’s de facto policy making will have been taken out of Parliament’s hands!

Where’s Parliamentary Sovereignty?

Well, that’s all very exciting, but where does it leave Parliament’s alleged sovereignty and the UK’s “taking back control”? The logic of the above argument is that, if Parliament rejects the government’s agreed EU deal, the government falls and Parliament loses control of what happens. And it loses its sovereign right to the second vote. If it votes to accept the deal, suspicion will always remain that this happened only to avoid the alternative chaos. So like the traditional shotgun marriage, Parliament cannot be said to have exercised its free will – and so is not sovereign.

So, heads you lose, tails you lose. The only way to avoid this is not to call a referendum in the first place.

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The Marketization of Thought

Sometimes nowadays it seems that reality has been replaced by a dark, dystopian satire. The old phrase “you couldn’t make it up!” would apply so often that we don’t give it another thought.

“Don’t Care” Rooms

The news that prompted my musings was that of an Essex hospital that was giving serious consideration to going into partnership with a company called CareRooms. In an apparently innovative way to reduce the problem of “bed-blocking” patients ready for discharge, but needing ongoing care and support, would move to spare rooms in private homes. The company would provide a form of brokering service, matching room providers to patients. Prospective hosts were said to be able to earn “up to £1000” a month.

Initial reaction from some quarters was positive. Some even suggested this would be a means for some hosts on benefits to avoid the “bedroom tax”. Income for householders, earlier release from hospital for patients, reduced benefits bill: what’s not to like? Everyone’s a winner, are they not? Y-e-e-s, well, hang on a minute…

Care Rooms website
All you need?

Before the NHS was set up in 1948, the misery and suffering by poor people because of a lack of affordable healthcare was a national – and international – scandal. They would avoid or delay seeking medical care because of the costs. Decisions such as “shall I call the doctor or feed the kids?” were commonplace. Or “pay the rent”, “light a fire”, “replace my worn-out shoes” and many, many more. The NHS was set up so that “never again” would people face these agonising choices. It was, and remains, a testament to the compassionate side of our human nature.

For the reasons just stated, it would have been literally unthinkable to suggest such a get-rich-quick scheme. For householders to provide care, and for the intermediary company to profit from, a service which should available, as of right, to all, defies the very founding principles of the NHS.

It’s wrong for several other reasons, too. Firstly, it’s just a way to try to get around the chronic underfunding of the NHS. For too long, we’ve tried to get our healthcare on the cheap. Secondly, it tries to solve the wrong problem. True, shortage of beds is one of the consequences of the underfunding, as one of the graphs from the last link shows. But the bigger problem is the shortage of properly trained community care staff to care for those discharged from hospital safely and appropriately. The people concerned are disproportionately vulnerable and elderly. How many of us would want an elderly relative – or ourselves – looked after by a well-meaning amateur who may have been attracted to the scheme by the money to be made?

The hospital quickly dropped the idea once it got publicity and a hostile reaction. But the fact that it was considered is an example of what I call the “marketization of thought”.

Our Factory Universities

Another example of how market thinking has spilled over into other human activities is how we discuss policy about universities. In my student days, it was natural to think of education, per se, as a “good thing”. More (good quality) education was even better and as many of us as possible should enjoy as much of it as possible. It wasn’t just the opportunity to learn things, of course. It was also very much about the process of learning: the new skills developed: to challenge and be challenged, to refine an idea reflectively or collectively, to create new ways of seeing things. We took for granted that all this experience would lead naturally to a better society: better informed, more highly skilled people making better decisions. Reason, rational debate and mutual respect were all part of this essentially Enlightened idea.

university factory
University factory

Depressingly, universities seem to be treated more and more as factories: factories which are there to enhance the lifetime earning powers of its products: the students. Certainly the whole debate about student loans is conducted in these terms. Individuals benefit, of course – the material self-interest mantra at the heart of Free Market Fundamentalism – and it is also sold as benefiting “UK plc”, whatever the hell that is. Oh yes, it’s the reduction of all our plans, our hopes, dreams, loves and fears, smiles and tears to the sum total of all the transactions in the land.

The “Customer Service” Nightmare Experience

Marketization of thought affects the way we, as consumers, interact with those from who we buy goods and services. Customer service has become increasingly impersonal. Consumers are encouraged more and more to use online services, requiring no real-time human interaction. For a large range of goods and services, this works pretty well for purchases, and when coupled with delivery to your door, is often far more convenient than a visit to the shops.

The old ways weren’t perfect. I remember, as a child, being dragged from shop to shop by my mum on a seemingly endless round of activity, but often not much seemed to get bought. My memory is of wasted hours in and out of the cold and coming home empty-handed. But every one of those would-be purchases would involve a face-to-face conversation, in naturalistic language, where preferences and nuances of taste could be mediated. There was a bit of polite social chit-chat, too – usually about the weather.

The range and quality of goods on offer has improved beyond my wildest childhood imaginings. Product innovation is an area where markets do serve us well. But, even here, some new product or service probably sits on the shoulders of an innovative breakthrough enabled, and publicly funded by those universities of which I spoke earlier.

But woe betides you when things go wrong. In 21st century Britain, so-called “customer service” too often takes the form of a Kafkaesque nightmare. Firstly, the company website: before you can begin to find how you can get help, you wade through a sea of “FAQs”, arranged in some arbitrary, illogical order, none of which seem to address quite your problem. Next, the “Contact us” page, often presented with just the wrong set of questions to “steer” you to the right department. These pages often have helpful message boxes to fill in, which sends an email to some unknown destination deep in the bowels of the organisation – but you don’t know where because there’s no fucking email address to be seen! And the number of times I’ve searched a website in vain for a contact phone number for myself or on behalf of clients, in my role as an adviser: yes, Virgin Media, that does include you!

Don’t Call Me

man waiting on phone
Please press 1 to give up!

Which brings us to that most vexed of subjects: the call centre. The consumer organisation  Which? once reported that waiting times on customer service phone numbers are, on average, seven times longer than those for sales departments. No, it wasn’t you’re imagination. And I cannot begin to count the hours I’ve spent listening to the Four Seasons on DWP and other government department call centre lines. If Vivaldi were still alive, his royalties would easily make him the richest man on the planet! Once you’ve navigated the “Press 1 for…, press 2 for…” hurdles, listened patiently to music on hold, you eventually reach an operative reading from a script who doesn’t have the authority to solve your problem. They promise to get “someone” to ring you back, but…

I had an early inkling of this “painting by numbers” approach to customer service when on a family holiday in the USA about 30 years ago. With youngish children, we typically ate at “family” restaurants. I quickly spotted the routine: a young waitress – it was invariably a “she” – would mechanically go through lists of choices: fruit juices, how you like your eggs (I once said “fried” on my first visit to the States years earlier – and was given a look as if I were a complete idiot). The most bewildering list was for salad dressings: I remember “French”, which was nothing like anything I’d seen in France, and some brightly-coloured goo called “Thousand Island”. Where on earth were these thousand islands where they ate this gunk? Bored with listening to the same lists endlessly repeated day after day, I tried to take the initiative by pre-empting my choices. Big mistake! I soon learnt that, whenever I did this, my waitress got confused and I got the wrong order. I soon learnt to wait to be processed through the system.

It wasn’t the waitresses’ fault – or the call centre operators’ fault, or any of the other bored employees you actually spoke to. After all, they’d been given just enough training and authority to guide customers through a standardised corporate process, but not enough to interact as one human being with another. Clever people in corporate HQs would streamline everything for maximum efficiency – and profit. Pity the poor customer who doesn’t like being processed like an item on a production line.

And so it has become more generally in the world of “customer service”. All this only becomes possible when decision-making is centralised and customers are treated as economic units to be exploited, rather than living, breathing humans.

Interlude: A German Joke

Time to lighten the mood. This story dates from the late 1970s, long before the wonders of computer-aided design had enabled the sophisticated customization and flexibility of modern production process. It’s a joke told to me by the German delegate at an international conference I attended. He was anxious to prove that his compatriots do have a sense of humour. You’ll see the relevance – it goes like this:

Word had spread the length and breadth of Germany of an exciting new invention: The Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine. Its inventor was the blacksmith in a small, hilltop village in Bavaria – let’s call it Rasiersdorf for now – who had shown no particular skills before, apart from being a steady and reliable blacksmith. A coachload of interested tourists went to track down the inventor and his amazing machine. The blacksmith was a shy, self-deprecating man who led his group of visitors into his workshop.

“My Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine will give the perfect shave to any man in the village!” The tourists looked doubtful, so the blacksmith said: “Bring me any man in the village old enough to grow a beard!” The guide went and returned with the village butcher. He sat in the blacksmith’s chair and was tied in with a leather strap. The Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine was lifted up by the blacksmith and tied to the butcher’s head. Various leather straps were adjusted and then the machine was switched on.

Cogs of all sizes began to turn and whir and, sure enough, two minutes later, the butcher stood up, showing off his perfectly-executed shave. “That’s truly amazing!” the visitors cried.  “Especially so”, said one, “considering all the different sizes and shapes of men’s heads and jawbones!”. “Ah, yes”, said the blacksmith, “But that was before the invention of the Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine!”.

robot barber
Something for the weekend, sir?

The next time you’re waiting for a call centre to answer, you’re on to your third tune of music on hold, the seventh time you’ve been told by a recording that “your business is important to us” and they’re “experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes”, just think on my little tale. It might just help you to retain a little vestige of the will to live.

Market Overreach

I’ve written before about the problems that arise when markets overreach themselves into areas where they don’t belong, most notably in Cat and Mouse. Obvious areas are privatised water, the utilities and railways. Plus, of course, the NHS. The energy regulator, Ofgem, proved once again yesterday that it doesn’t understand the stupidity of what it is trying to regulate. It says that the “big six” oligopolistic companies made a healthy profit margin of 4.5% by overcharging those customers who had not switched suppliers. The gap between the lowest and highest tariffs has widened. If all customers, and not just those switching, were on the best tariffs, the companies would have made a 6% loss instead.

Ofgem refers to non-switchers as “less-engaged consumers”. “Engaged”? ENGAGED?? Pardon me: I like to get engaged in a good discussion at a meeting or a pub. I got engaged to each of my wives (serially!) before we got married. I also enjoy being engaged in the plot and characters of a well-crafted film, novel or TV series. People get engaged in sport, hobbies and pastimes they enjoy. But engaged in shopping around for where to buy the stuff that makes my light come on when I press the switch? Come off it! I can think of at least 8 billion other things I’d rather be engaged in! Electricity, water and public transport are all basic essentials to modern life. I just expect them to be there and work, at a fair price. At the end of a rail journey, I don’t want to be told “Thank you for choosing to travel today by X”. (Fill in your own privatised, monopoly rail company at the X.) As if I had a choice! Nationalise the lot and sack the regulators, and let us get on with our lives in peace!

antique toilet
A guide to life?

In their very different ways, the examples I’ve given above reflect the overreach of markets into every corner of our lives. Worse too, it’s infecting the language we use and the way we describe activities that have (or should have) nothing to do with markets. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has said: markets, like toilets, both man-made inventions, are very useful in the right context. But no-one tries to run the whole of society on the basis of toilets. The same must be true for markets.

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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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