Thursday 7 December 2023

Why concentrate only on one side of the equation?


The government claims that its proposed changes to the rules for legal migration into the UK will reduce the net total by around 300,000 per year. If they fully implement what they have announced, that may well turn out to be an underestimate; their numbers are based on the English exceptionalist belief that people are so keen to come to the UK that people will leave their families behind and come to take up low-paid jobs as carers, and that the brightest and best post-graduate researchers will similarly abandon their families and come to the UK alone, at least until their salary crosses an arbitrary threshold. It’s a big ‘if’ though; and the chances of the Tories fully implementing the plans are vanishingly small, not least because it will take time to draw up the detailed rules and procedures and process all those applications already in the system whilst the clock is already ticking down to the next election.

However, that isn’t the only reason for doubting whether they will ever do more than talk about the plans. Assuming that potential immigrants will happily leave their families behind as well as paying increased fees for the privilege of coming to the UK is only one of the silly assumptions that they’re making. They are also assuming that the electors whose votes they are chasing would either prefer to see the social care system go into meltdown than have immigrants working in it or else don’t understand the degree of dependency on those immigrants. The reality will become obvious at some point. It’s not a crisis which would hit social care overnight, of course – but like Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy, it’s something which will happen in two ways: slowly, and then suddenly. Perhaps there are some people who really would be happy with that – but it’s unlikely that those whose relatives are dependent on that care will agree. And as things slowly get worse, the government will inevitably be tempted to reverse its policy, albeit as quietly as possible. Hopefully before the collapse enters the sudden phase.

Labour’s response has been little better. Equally convinced that the population are demanding an immediate halt to immigration, they have come up with an entirely arbitrary proposal to cap net migration at 200,000. Why 200,000? Why not 250,000? Why not 150,000? These are not questions to which they have any sort of rational answer; they’ve simply produced a figure from thin air which they think might be acceptable to the racists and xenophobes whose votes they seek, with no real thought given to the implications. Yet still they are likely to win the next election. Suella Braverman has said this week that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” if the government’s Rwanda legislation fails. In a rare moment of consensus, I agree. But then I’d also agree if she’d said that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” if the government’s Rwanda legislation succeeds. Saying that the Tories face electoral oblivion is one of those sentences which currently works perfectly well without any qualifying clause.

There is one policy change that they could make which might actually get the net migration figure down without the performative cruelty which they both seem to think is essential politics. Mathematically, in any ‘net’ figure there are two factors involved – so increasing emigration would have the same effect on the net numbers as decreasing immigration. It’s unfortunate that they shot themselves in both feet by removing freedom of movement, but if the financial incentives were good enough, there might be quite a few people willing to help the government out of its troubles by emigrating. It’s not a solution that’s ever likely to occur to them though: from their exceptionalist position, they would never understand why anyone would ever want to escape the dysfunctional rogue state which the UK has become.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Labour austerity looks inevitable


It’s impossible to disagree with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer when he says that Margaret Thatcher was responsible for significant and long term changes in the way that the UK economy works, or that she entered government with some clear ideas about what she wanted to do. Whether the changes were a good thing or not is much more arguable, to say the least; and the idea that those changes released entrepreneurialism in the UK has been succinctly rebutted by Prof. Richard Murphy. Perhaps Starmer merely wished to praise the determination and attitude she showed rather than what she actually did, but it didn’t sound that way when he said it, and not for the first time he seems to be struggling to ‘correct’ his words retrospectively. And whether it was politically wise even to go that far is another question entirely – why on earth raise a comparison to Thatcher when you’re staring at an open goal left by Sunak?

There is a fundamental belief at the core of Conservative ideology that the private sector and the public sector are in competition, and that the private sector creates wealth whilst the public sector consumes it. It’s clear from their statements that better public services depend on private sector economic growth that Starmer and Reeves also believe it. They’re not alone: it’s one of those things that is so ‘obvious’ that many people across the political spectrum believe it. It’s also absolute tosh. It may be based on a confusion between two different meanings of the word ‘wealth’. There is the wealth which all the individuals in a country own, measured by bank balances and assets held, and there is the wealth of the country as a whole, measured by GDP. The ‘growth’ that Starmer is referring to is an increase in GDP, but an increase in spending by the public sector leads to the same amount of GDP growth as the same amount of increased spending in the private sector. Given the way that GDP is calculated, it cannot mathematically be otherwise. Certainly, some people became extremely wealthy under Thatcher, but much of that was a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and the ever-increasing gap between the richest and poorest in society is the most pernicious long-term effect of Thatcherism. The accumulation of private wealth in an ever-smaller number of hands is not the same as an increase in national wealth.

There are, of course, arguments to be had about whether it is ‘better’ for investment to come from the private sector or the public sector – and the public sector’s record in managing some projects and investments leaves a lot to be desired. Whether that is inevitable or a result of structural or procedural problems is a debate for another time, but the idea that only one of those approaches should count in measuring growth is just ideological bias. When the private sector invests, the money comes from a combination of borrowing and income raised from customers; when the public sector invests, it comes from a combination of borrowing and taxes raised from the population as a whole. In GDP terms, whether we pay for something out of tax or as part of the price of the goods and services we buy is irrelevant – we’re still paying either way. It’s just that tax deducted from salary is more obvious. And in either case, 'borrowing' is a simplistic way of describing a complicated process whereby the government - or the banks operating under government licence - create and destroy money at the press of a few keys, as well as borrowing directly from people who see their loans as investments.

The debate which we should be having – and which a Labour Party worthy of the name would be leading rather than suppressing – is about which things we want to purchase collectively through the state, which we want to leave to the profit-driven market place, and how we decide between the two. It’s a point which ideologically-driven fiscal conservatives like Starmer can’t even begin to understand. And that lack of understanding leads inevitably to Labour austerity.

Monday 4 December 2023

Avoiding criticism


According to Rishi Sunak, the UK is a world leader when it comes to action to respond to climate change, despite his decisions to delay some actions and plough ahead with further oil and gas exploration. To put it in context, however, he regularly claims that the UK is a world leader on most things. Lack of any supporting evidence is, apparently, no hindrance to making outrageously inaccurate claims and expecting that everyone else will just accept those claims as true. In the case of climate change, he does, on this occasion, produce some 'evidence' for his assertion: none of the other world leaders at COP28 have raised any issues with him, proving, in his mind at least, that they’re all very happy with what he’s doing. It probably helped him to avoid their criticism that he made only the briefest of flying visits, spending more time flying there and back (in a private jet, of course, so as to demonstrate his credentials on the subject) than he did on the ground.

Those who did stay a little longer certainly picked up plenty of criticism from other delegations. The Observer says that “Representatives of several countries also told the Observer they were disappointed at the UK’s stance”, and Labour sources say that they “… found other international delegations bemoaning the UK government’s approach.” But Sunak didn’t stay long enough to hear it for himself, even if he knew how to switch his ears to receive mode, and it therefore doesn’t count. US climate envoy Al Gore was pretty blunt, but he probably doesn’t count as a world leader in Sunak’s view – not least because he isn’t British and only the British government can be a world leader. Besides, Gore’s accusation that the UK government is “in the pocket of fossil fuel companies” probably sounds like a compliment to Sunak. After all, isn’t facilitating the making of private profit by large corporations exactly what Conservatives are for?

Saturday 2 December 2023

Ending the silliness


Most of us would understand that if we buy a television from a person who previously stole it from the house next door it doesn’t suddenly cease to be stolen, and nor does it become ours, even if we get a proper paper receipt from the thief. Once stolen, always stolen; and it remains, legally, the property of the original owner. And receiving stolen goods is an offence in its own right. As a general rule, that is the viewpoint of the UK government – except, apparently, when it comes to cultural treasures, in which case possession becomes nine-tenths of the law. There isn’t really much doubt that the Parthenon marbles held in the British Museum were looted from Athens by Lord Elgin, and arguing – as the British government does – that he took them with the consent of the Ottoman rulers at the time rather overlooks the fact that the Ottomans had simply helped themselves to the whole of Greece in the first place. The subsequent sale to the British Museum, covered as it is by a proper paper receipt, doesn’t make the original theft go away.

Sunak claims that the issue is “long-settled”, and the Greeks should stop raising the issue. It seems to me that for a dispute between two parties to arrive at the status of ‘settled’, one of two things has to happen: either both parties agree that it is settled, or else some mutually-agreed outside body, court, or mediator makes a judgement. In the case of the marbles, the Greek government has never agreed that the issue is settled, and the UK government has refused all offers of mediation and dispute resolution – presumably because it recognises that it would lose. A unilateral declaration that the issue is ‘settled’, of the type made by Sunak, is a product of magical thinking of the sort at which English exceptionalists excel.

They do, of course, have an act of parliament to back up their refusal to consider repatriation of the looted materials. But the belief that a law passed by the English parliament prohibiting the British Museum from ever disposing of any of its treasures, howsoever they were acquired, will somehow stand up in any international court is as silly as believing that an act of parliament can make an unsafe country safe. (It’s also inconsistent with the core principle of the English constitution that no parliament can ever bind its successors, but consistency isn’t exactly a strong point of the current government.) It is, though, the sort of silliness that flows inevitably from an unshakeable belief that the English parliament, uniquely on the whole planet, has absolute sovereignty and can pass any law it wishes, as well as ignoring any international treaty or body that it chooses, because that sovereignty was bestowed by God in person on the monarch. It is also the sort of silliness which transcends any change of government, and to which all previous governments have fallen prey, and we have seen from Starmer’s response to Sunak’s approach that the next government will be no different.

A change of government is never going to be enough to stop the silliness; the whole system and structures of government also need to be changed. A written constitution recognising that sovereignty belongs to the people not the monarch would be a good start, closing down unelected law-making institutions would be another, and an electoral system which didn’t put absolute power into the hands of a extremist fringe on the basis of a minority of the votes would be a good third step. (And banning the alumni of certain schools, which seem to actively promote magical thinking, from ever standing for election or holding any positions of power might help as a stop-gap until the bigger issues could be addressed.) None of this will we get from Labour. Yet all of it is available any time that we take the decision to do things ourselves. We really don’t have to allow ourselves to be dragged along by the silliness.

Sunday 12 November 2023

Poor Suella


Poor Suella Braverman. It has long been her fondest dream to see a plane taking off for Rwanda filled with unhappy, and preferably tearful, would-be immigrants. It looks very much as if the Supreme Court will tell us all on Wednesday whether her dream is lawful or not. One rather suspects that she would quite like to be at Heathrow to wave it off on 25th December. There can, after all, be few more thoughtful Christmas gifts for desperate people than a free one-way flight to a country of which they’ve never heard. It is also looking extremely probable that she will by then, in any event, be just another former Home Secretary, leaving someone else to gloat over the flight, if it is indeed to take place.

The reason for her pending departure, assuming that Sunak manages to find a tiny fragment of backbone down the back of the settee where he usually hides his principles, is that her second fondest dream came true just yesterday. She hoped for disruption, violence and mass arrests and was presumably delighted when she got some. She is probably a little disappointed that those arrested for the disruption and violence were her supporters rather than the ones she wanted arrested but will probably conclude that it just confirms what she said about police bias. It is clearly unfair that the police deliberately targeted those using violence rather than those just doing a bit of chanting. She probably wishes that the other Suella Braverman – the one who told police to stop messing about investigating hate crimes and concentrate on real crimes such as violence – had never opened her mouth.

Thursday 9 November 2023

The power of the hat


This week saw the official state opening of parliament. This is a strange ceremony which sees a posh bloke and his wife arrive in a horse-drawn carriage, with his magic hat following behind in a carriage of its own because, apparently, only three people are allowed to touch it (presumably in case the magic wears off or gets imparted to the wrong person). The procession is followed by people responsible for sweeping up the inevitable results of parading horses through the streets. When they get to parliament, the posh bloke sits in a posh seat, wearing his magic hat, and his wife sits in another slightly less posh seat deliberately placed at a lower level so that no-one ends up looking taller than the posh bloke himself. 

He then gets handed a speech, written on goatskin parchment which contains no trace of goat, which he is obliged to read out to an audience comprising as of right several hundred legislators who have not been elected to the role, including the hierarchy of a single sect of a single religion of only a part of the UK as well as a group which are only there because some ancestor or other did something or other which pleased one of the posh bloke’s ancestors. The officially humble elected legislators are summoned to attend whether they like it or not and forced to stand, which is not entirely strange to them because the legislature has never considered it necesary to provide enough seats for its members anway. The speech contains details of things that the government might or might not do during the next twelve months: there is no obligation on the government to do something just because they’ve forced the posh bloke to say that they would, and there is nothing to stop them doing things which they didn’t even tell the posh bloke about. It also contains party political propaganda which the posh bloke is obliged to read out whether he agrees with it or not.

Apparently, the UK’s so-called modern parliamentary democracy cannot operate without this pantomime being performed before each session. But who, in their right minds, would ever invent a process which placed such a dependency on the alleged powers of that magic hat?

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Is peace ever a bad thing?


Sir Keir Starmer sems to have got both himself and his party into something of a twist over calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, preferring merely to support a ‘humanitarian pause’. From the point of view of those being killed, any halt to the shooting has to be better than nothing, but the two things are entirely different. A pause suggests that the killing will be resumed once the potential victims have had their deliveries of food, water and medicines – more a case of providing a final meal for the condemned than of granting them a reprieve. Principled it is not, and it’s been a pleasant surprise to see the extent of pushback against him from his party’s members.

His argument is an ‘interesting’ one. There is no point calling for a ceasefire, he says, when neither side is going to agree at this stage. It may well be true that they won’t agree, but it’s a curious argument against seeking a ceasefire, and he doesn’t seem to understand that it renders much of what he says on other issues completely pointless as well. If you believe that Sunak is not going to agree to an early election, then it’s pointless Labour calling for one. Indeed, there’s little point in the opposition ever calling for anything if they know that the government isn’t going to agree. They could probably sack half their press team if they stopped calling for things to which those to whom the call is made aren’t going to agree. Worse, he and many of the senior members of his party seem to have fallen into the trap of believing that anyone calling for a ceasefire is necessarily supporting one side in the conflict – and from his perspective, that would be the wrong side. The idea that some people might just want to stop the slaughter is clearly alien to him.

There’s something equally strange about the government’s obsession with trying to prevent any marches on Remembrance Day, because they would be somehow inappropriate. On my understanding of history, the whole point of Remembrance Day is to remember the fallen, celebrate the subsequent peace, and remind ourselves that we should never let it happen again. It’s hard to understand why calling for peace is in any way at odds with those sentiments. Except that the act of remembrance has been increasingly hijacked as a celebration of British exceptionalism, nationalism and military victory, rather than a tribute to those who lost so much. It’s true, of course, that not all of those marching are limiting their demands to a ceasefire, and that there are elements who are calling for a victory for one side in a long-standing and complex conflict. But most just want to stop the killing – is that really so inappropriate on the day we remember the fallen in so many other wars?

Monday 6 November 2023

They know their members


Those great British values so beloved of the Home Secretary, or at least her new degraded version of them, have been making a number of outings in recent days. Apparently, showing any sympathy for people who end up sleeping rough is now un-British, as is failure to support all of the institutions of the state, and holding a demonstration of any sort on 11th November. One rather suspects that they actually wanted to criminalise failing to kick homeless people, failure to wear a poppy, failure to observe the two minutes’ silence, and failure to be an ardent monarchist. And, probably, failure to be a member of the Tory Party. The only thing that stopped them is the realisation that they don’t have enough prison cells or detention camps to house all the people who would thereby be criminalised. Yet.

In truth, they will have real difficulty in drawing up legislation to implement these totalitarian views, unless it simply says that the police can and must do whatever the Home Secretary tells them to do. Keeping it simple. Barring that, for instance, if they ban giving tents to the homeless, will they also ban giving them money for a cup of tea? And if it’s OK to give them money, will there be a limit on it, or can we give them enough to buy a tent? And even if there is a limit, what if a group of people gang together and collectively give someone enough to buy a tent?

The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and the detail will give the legal draftsmen nightmares, if it ever gets to the point of drawing up legislation. I doubt, thought, that it ever will; it’s all about winning votes rather than passing laws. I don’t know how many voters at large will be attracted by such a programme, although I’m sure that the number isn’t as low as I would like. But that isn’t the target electorate in this case: the target is those people who will have a vote in the forthcoming leadership election in the Tory Party. Those putting forward this sort of proposals have used their best judgement and concluded that that particular electorate contains many of the most nasty, cruel, inhumane, unempathetic, jingoistic, backward-looking, and mean people in the UK. It’s not often that I concur with the judgement of Suella Braverman.

Friday 3 November 2023

Catching the PM by surprise


When the pandemic struck, it seems to have come as a complete surprise to Boris Johnson that the hopelessly underfunded NHS and Social Care systems had not sorted out what he called the “decades-old problem of delayed discharges”, meaning that something like 30% of hospital beds were occupied by people who didn’t need to be in a hospital at all. He’s probably going to be even more surprised, not to say angry, when he finds out who had been in charge for the previous decade, and who had been cutting budgets for the whole of that period. On second thoughts, probably not. Everything that happened before 2019, in his mind, was the fault of a different government and party. It’s only in the world that the rest of us live in where there’s any connection between the two.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Nature's Way


Yesterday’s session of the Covid inquiry heard suggestions that Boris Johnson saw the virus as “nature’s way of dealing with old people”. For once he may have been, albeit only slightly, unfairly quoted. What he actually said was that his party believed that to be the case; as for himself, he merely said that he wasn’t entirely sure that he disagreed. It’s an important distinction, and it’s one that does make a difference. Whilst the rats seem to be quite happy to desert a sinking ship those who were closest to him seem quite happy to heap the blame on one man, the issue which should worry us more is that the phrase reflects the thinking of the government party as a whole. And it really isn’t that surprising.

Covid has been just one example of a mindset which thinks that the only important people in society are ‘working people’, and especially ‘hard-working people’ (and it’s worth noting in passing that on this point, as on so many others, the difference between the Tories and Labour is striking mostly for its absence). It is a philosophical viewpoint which, as often commented on this blog, places the needs of ‘the economy’ above those of ordinary people, and sees most of us as nothing more than resources to be exploited in the interests of that ‘economy’. But the ‘economy’ isn’t some amorphous undefined general good; from their perspective, ‘the economy’ is all about companies and businesses, not people. Enriching those who own and run those companies is the main purpose of economic activity; others simply sell their labour. And if people have no labour to sell – the old and the vulnerable – then they are disposable. Johnson may, on behalf of his party, have put it in starker terms – more honest terms, even, an unusual word to use in relation to Johnson – than his colleagues, but it would be a mistake to let the others off the hook just because of his rare burst of honesty. ‘Eat out to help the virus spread’ was simply one example of that philosophy in action – the interests of the businesses concerned were seen by the then Chancellor as trumping the interests of those who would die as a result. Sunak may not have put things in such forthright language as Johnson, but he’s every bit as guilty, and we shouldn’t allow anger with Johnson’s insouciance to cloud that fact.

Another thing we learned yesterday is that the PM’s then communications chief, Lee Cain – a man whose principal claim to fame is having dressed as a chicken to pursue David Cameron around the country during the 2010 election – believed that Covid was the wrong crisis for this particular PM (i.e. Johnson). ‘Wrong sort of crisis’ might make it sound as though he’s competing with Thérèse Coffey for that job at Network Rail, but while it has a certain air of truth, it leaves one very big question unanswered – exactly what sort of crisis would have been the right one to have someone like Johnson in charge?