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

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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Corbyn Gets It, May Doesn’t

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

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

The Evidence

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

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

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

May and Corbyn

May at BoE

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

corbyn at brighton
Corbyn at Brighton

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

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

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Truce and Lies

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

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

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

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

May’s “Big” Speech

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

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

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

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

Theresa May in Florence
May in Florence – or anywhere?

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

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

The Lies

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

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

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

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Clifftop Britain

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

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

The Bad Night

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

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

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

The Way Down

But the 27 also set two conditions to their help.

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

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

So, now, what do you do?

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

The Real World

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

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

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

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