Monday 27 February 2023

Ideology hasn't gone away


Something that this blog has touched on from time to time is the idea that ideology is no longer relevant, or that we live in some sort of ‘post-ideological’ world, as I’ve seen some politicians describe it. It isn’t true. Different ideological perspectives haven’t gone away at all; they are just not represented in the main political parties, and don’t form part of mainstream political debate. The two main UK parties have both bought in to the same ideology, and argument between them is more about whether, and to what extent, the effects of their common ideology should be mitigated than about whether the underlying tenets of that ideology should be challenged and debated. This article on Nation.Cymru a couple of days ago referred to the same issue, albeit that it wasn’t always clear about the distinction between principles and ideas on the one hand and underlying ideology on the other.

It isn’t easy to try and sum up an ideology in a few words for the purposes of a short blog post, but if I had to pick out some of the key elements of the capitalist ideology which constrains mainstream political debate in the UK, I would pick the following four points:

1.    Competition (between individuals, organisations, and states) is generally to be preferred over co-operation,

2.    The objective of the economy is the generation and accumulation of wealth, and the purpose of the state is to facilitate that aim,

3.    Success, whether for an individual, an organisation, or a state, is measured in terms of the amount of wealth accumulated, and

4.    The role of citizens is to serve the economy and the state in the generation and accumulation of wealth.

The difference between Labour and Tory isn’t about any of those underlying beliefs, it is about the detail of policy resulting from them – Labour want to make the distribution of the accumulated wealth a little less unfair, and want to help the least privileged to be better able to compete with others and to fulfil their allotted role in the economy. These may be worthy aims, but they don’t represent an ideological difference. They might argue that small, gradual, and incremental changes are all that’s possible in current circumstances, and making small improvements to people’s lives is worthwhile in itself. I don’t totally disagree with that: for the disadvantaged, even a small improvement is better than nothing. There is, though, no reframing of how things could be; no great vision for a better world. The difference is between sects within an ideology rather than between different ideological perspectives.

One alternative ideological perspective would be to re-write points 1 to 4 above as follows:

1.    Co-operation (between individuals, organisations, and states) is generally to be preferred over competition,

2.    The objective of the economy is to secure the fulfilment and happiness of the population, and the purpose of the state is to facilitate that aim,

3.    Success, whether for an individual, an organisation, or a state, is measured in terms of the extent to which people are happy and able to lead fulfilled lives,

4.    The role of the economy and the state is to serve citizens in the achievement of the above.

It would be silly, of course, to ignore the role of ‘wealth’ in its widest sense in enabling the alternative view. Money may not buy happiness, but its absence is a sure-fire way of making people unhappy. But the policy differences stemming from the second perspective are much more significant than a little bit of redistribution here, and a bit of extra help there. An education system aimed at developing people’s potential, and at having a well-educated population as a goal in itself, rather than a population only trained to do the work required is one. An understanding that ‘wealth’ ultimately boils down to ‘access to resources’, and that a resource-constrained world needs to agree on how to share those resources fairly for the benefit of all is another.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that we can get from where we are to where we could be overnight, although we certainly won’t get there by not trying. But the alternative vision isn’t even being presented; those for whom ‘there is no alternative’, to coin a phrase, have successfully closed the Overton window to a narrow interdenominational debate with the constraints of their own ideology. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Friday 24 February 2023

Something in the water?


Perhaps they’re just stupid, or maybe there’s something in the ‘water’ that they’re drinking, but it increasingly appears that some Tories can’t see a hole without jumping into it and digging it deeper. I suppose the Environment Secretary’s Press Officer might have had a day off, but he or she would not have been doing the job very well if they had not anticipated the “Let them eat Turnips” headline which followed the minister’s statement to MPs. The basic point she was making – that it is preferable to eat what happens to be in season – is eminently sensible, albeit unlikely to prove terribly popular with people who have become accustomed to year-round availability. To say nothing of the inherent contradiction with the Brexiteers’ message that Brexit would not impact the availability of products on UK supermarket shelves. And who wants to live on turnips anyway, even if it were possible for supply to immediately follow demand in the oversimplistic way that economics tends to assume.

There is, of course, some debate about the extent to which Brexit is to blame for what will surely be known to future generations as the Great Tomato Crisis of 2023. Those Tory MPs denying the impact of Brexit on the shortage are surely right to argue that voting for Brexit didn’t cause storms in Spain or frosts in Morocco, but that doesn’t entirely explain the empirical fact that the shortages are not being replicated across the EU. If suppliers can’t meet all the demand, it would not be surprising if they took the easy way out of supplying those countries to which they can export hassle-free rather than the country which has imposed swingeing economic sanctions on itself by erecting barriers to trade and committing itself to putting further obstacles in place in the future. Brexit is at least part of the problem.

It isn’t, however, the full story. A report on the BBC a few days ago also drew attention to the different procurement models in operation, suggesting that UK supermarkets have signed long-term deals with suppliers so that prices are fixed for 18 months, whereas EU supermarkets tend to buy their fruit and vegetables on a month by month basis at the spot price applying at the time. The UK’s approach works well if supplies are plentiful and stable: both supplier and purchaser have a degree of certainty. Suppliers can plan their seasonal activity well in advance, and retailers can keep prices stable for end-consumers. It falls down, though, when there is a disruption to supply. If producers, forced to prioritise, can get a higher price in the short term by prioritising customers prepared to pay more and with less paperwork and hassle, why wouldn’t they do exactly that?

There’s a wider issue here as well. ‘Procurement improvements’ are often touted by politicians as some sort of ‘efficiency saving’, and it’s true that better procurement can bring savings to the organisation doing the procurement. There are usually costs and consequences to someone else, however. Combining procurement needs for several departments or, in the public sector, for several different organisations (it might well be called a cartel if the private sector did the same thing) can make it harder for small local companies to supply goods and services; but using larger, more remote companies helps to leach cash out of a local economy. And whilst one of the other common tricks – using purchasing power to demand more credit by taking longer to pay invoices – improves the cash flow of the buyer, it has precisely the opposite effect on the supplier. What looks attractive at the micro level to the organisation(s) wielding the purchasing power can be a lot less so at the macro level for local workers and companies in general.

By unfortunate coincidence, the Labour Party announced a few days ago that one of the ways in which they are going to pay for their programme in government (because they’re hooked on the fantasy that everything has to be fully costed) is by improvements to public sector procurement. I’m sure that they’ll even put a specific sum of money on the benefit, even though the actual number is necessarily unknowable. They are unlikely to spell out the consequences for other parts of the economy, but consequences there will be (there always are) even if unintended. They’ve probably been drinking the same ‘water’.

Thursday 23 February 2023

What are parties for?


It’s rather more than half a century since I read Bob McKenzie’s tome on British Political Parties, so my memory of the detail is more than a little hazy. My main takeaway from the book was that the Conservative and Labour parties, despite starting from very different places, had ended up, organizationally at least, in a very similar place. The Conservative Party started in parliament as a grouping of members elected as individuals, and only later set up any organisation outside parliament in the form of local associations to support those individuals. Indeed, as I recall, despite the party having been founded almost two centuries ago, for most of that time, only MPs could join the ‘party’; mere plebs could only join their local association. Labour, on the other hand, was founded outside parliament, as a democratic movement, with the aim of achieving the policy objectives defined by its members. Both have ended up, with the brief aberration of the Corbyn years, as parties largely run by their elected MPs; both leaderships see their memberships as being there to serve them, rather than the other way around.

That which has happened in organisational terms has been reflected in policy terms as well. ‘Policy’ has become that which they say to win votes (and is most definitely not to be confused with what they will do if actually elected). It’s an exaggeration (to which I’ve sometimes been prone myself) to argue that there is ‘no’ difference between them, but the difference between vicious uncaring austerity on the one hand and austerity with a caring face and a few minor mitigations on the other is hardly a difference of ideological outlook. The point is that, on all the main points of neoliberal economics, the two parties are singing from the same hymn sheet, even if one is the tenor and the other the bass. For both of them, the only conceivable answer to the question ‘what are political parties for?’ has become ‘ensuring the election of this gang rather than that gang’ instead of presenting voters with any sort of real choice of futures.

It leads to articles like this one from the Guardian, where the author argues that the Labour Party leadership has a duty to restrict the influence of mere members on its policies and leaders. Far better to let MPs be the judge, apparently. There are similar murmurings within the Conservative Party about the dangers of allowing ordinary members any sort of role in selecting their leader. (Although, after the Truss debacle, it’s easy to see why people might think that.) It’s the sort of view of what political parties are about which leads to this sort of nonsense, advocating that the SNP should drop their demand for independence and choose some other mission in the light of their failure to win over a clear majority. It reminds me of Phil Williams’s old story about the man who came up to him and said, “If only you’d drop this nonsense about independence, Plaid Cymru would sweep the Valleys”. Well, yes. Or, perhaps, maybe. It's not something that’s ever been tried, although there have been periods where it seemed that some Plaid figures were at least flirting with the idea. There was another article by Martin Shipton in the Western Mail a week or so ago (unable to find it online) about Plaid’s launch of its new strategy. It contained a number of valid points and criticisms, but one of his points was that Plaid’s new platform looked remarkably similar to the previous one. Both that and the Telegraph miss the point: if a party believes that its proposals are the right ones for the country in which it operates, failure to persuade the populace at large doesn’t make them the wrong ones. Unless, of course, you start from the prevailing Labour-Tory belief that parties are just about getting elected, not about what they do afterwards.

Some argue that we are in a period of post-ideological politics, where minor differences of approach are all that there are. That is testimony to the success of capitalist ideology in convincing enough people that it isn’t an ideology at all. (Spoiler: it is.) And in the case of the UK, an electoral system which polarises people into two main parties, both of which believe that they are fighting for voters exclusively in the so-called ‘centre’, reinforces the expectation that the future will always be much like the past. Breaking through that is never going to be easy, but it’s an absolute certainty that accepting the basic premise is not the way of doing it.

Monday 20 February 2023

No way out for Sunak


Poor Rishi Sunak. All the indications are that he has gone into the negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol with the honest but completely mistaken view that he was trying to make the agreement signed by his predecessor but one work, and that the way to do that was to be reasonable and reach an agreement which would benefit all the stakeholders involved. He’s now finding out just how wrong he was; the objective of those opposing the agreement – including those who originally negotiated and agreed it – is not to make it work but to destroy it. The man responsible for the original agreement has never concealed, from the outset, the fact that he never had any intention of implementing it. Indeed, he made it so clear that it’s easy to understand his surprise at the idea that the EU ever thought he was being serious. The EU were taken completely unawares, despite all the evidence to help them, to find out that they were dealing with liars all along. 

In fairness to the Brexiteers, they have been fairly consistent in saying that what they want is full access to the EU single market without following any of the rules which member states have to follow, on the basis that this would give UK companies a competitive advantage. They’re right – it would indeed do that. Which is why no-one other than the English exceptionalists behind Brexit (and their DUP allies) ever thought for one moment that the EU would concede such an arrangement. In essence, it’s what those in favour of a ‘pure’ form of free trade have always wanted – trade with no tariffs, no border controls and no rules. And they genuinely seem to be so divorced from reality that they actually believed that they could bludgeon the EU into giving them such a deal.

We don’t yet know the detail of what Sunak has or has not agreed, although it would be surprising if it was far away from what has been widely reported in the press. And from that reporting, it looks like it’s little different from what could have been achieved in the original negotiation had the UK side been willing to take the time to discuss and agree rather than make threats and then sign up in haste (to 'get Brexit done') to something that they were never going to implement. It’s unlikely, though, that anything that is agreed will be acceptable to the DUP or the Tory extremists if it leaves any trace of EU laws or rules in Northern Ireland, or any hint of controls on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK. It's equally unlikely that the EU will agree to any deal which does not uphold both those things. And that would lead us, inexorably, to the establishment of border controls on the island of Ireland. The Brexiteers would say that isn’t what they want (although the DUP would probably be delighted). They might even be telling the truth on that, but only because they’ve always believed two things:

·        Firstly (even if few of them have said it out loud), that the Republic of Ireland should know its place and follow the UK out of the EU, preferably re-joining the UK and swearing loyalty to the English monarchy at the same time. Their attitude towards Ireland is a bit like that of Putin towards Ukraine – it’s not a proper country and has no real right to a separate existence.

·        Secondly, that the UK’s departure would be the beginning of the end for the EU, which is still the end-game for many of them.

Where that leaves Sunak and his renegotiation is a big question. There is some doubt about whether he actually needs to put his deal to Parliament at all. Under the UK’s arcane system of semi-democracy, it arguably falls under the royal prerogative, meaning that ministers can just sign it and implement it. It would make him look frightened and weak, but he might prefer that to the alternative scenario where he puts it to parliament and it gets passed by opposition votes with a huge number of Tories voting against it. Rocks and hard places both leave him weakened, with the blond-headed shark circling maliciously. And both still leave the Conservative Party unmanageable and drifting as it attempts to reconcile the two irreconcilably opposing views on Europe which have destroyed so many of its leaders over the past three decades. In any functioning democracy, these two views would be represented by two different parties, but an outdated electoral system which polarises elections between two parties means that both try to manage differences within a broad church. Traditionally, that’s been more of a problem for Labour than the Tories, but it increasingly looks as if it might turn out to be terminal for the Tories. The coming implosion is almost too kind a way out.

Friday 17 February 2023

Valuing outcomes over process


One of the things I learned about running projects during my working life is that process is as important as outcome. And at the risk of being accused of a gross act of gender stereotyping, it also appeared to me that it was often (but not exclusively) men who fixated on outcomes, whilst women were often at least as interested in the process by which those outcomes were achieved. Success – at least in terms of carrying people with you – necessarily involves paying attention to both aspects. One of my great hopes for the Senedd (or Assembly as was) was always that achieving a gender balance might lead to a kinder form of politics in which the process of arriving at outcomes was given rather more importance than ever seemed to be the case in Westminster – that is to say that it would harness the best of both approaches. I haven’t been entirely disappointed, but then neither have things worked out quite as I would have hoped (especially, it has to be said, from the Conservative ranks).

At first sight, Rishi Sunak’s decision to use the Section 35 process to block the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Act might well look like a clever move. After all, there are elements of the Act which leave some SNP MSPs – to say nothing of party members or voters – very unhappy, and if you’re going to choose a battlefield, one where the enemy is divided is better than one where he is united. It is, though, a classic example of confusing outcomes with process. And probably deliberately so. The problem doesn’t start and end with Sunak and the Tories either. Labour’s parliamentary opposition to devolving the right to Wales to review gender recognition rules here (despite the views of Labour MSPs), and what looks like implicit support for Sunak on this issue, seems to be based on similar considerations. It’s not at all clear whether, or to what extent, the problems over this particular legislation played a part in the announcement this week of the Scottish First Minister’s resignation, nor whether her successor will do what she said she was going to do and challenge the UK government’s decision in the courts. Given the divisions within the SNP on the substantive issue, it’s a tough call; but leaving the decision unchallenged serves only to emphasise the reality of devolution: real power remains in London.

A few days ago, Simon Jenkins wrote a column for the Guardian in which he argued that there has always been another route to independence, via the infamous ‘devo-max’ referred to by Gordon Brown and others at the time of the last independence referendum. I suspect that he’s entirely right in his suggestion that had that third option been on the ballot paper in 2014, it would have secured an easy majority over both independence and the status quo. That’s partly, at least, because ‘devo-max’ is – and always has been – an ill-defined proposition which means different things to different people. The likelihood that legislation passed by either the Tories or Labour in London would have matched the expectations raised by the term must surely be close to zero, meaning that it would have resolved nothing. We have, after all, seen what they did with the famous ‘Vow’, which was effectively gutted by the parties who signed up to it. But, even supposing that ‘devo-max’ legislation had been written and passed, both Labour and the Tories would certainly have inserted the equivalent of Section 35 somewhere; at the end of the day, whatever the extent of devolution, however the legislation is framed, power devolved will always mean power retained.

There is one, and only one, way of bringing about anything remotely resembling a federal UK, and that is to start from a position where each of the member countries is assumed to be independent and they then come together as equals to agree which powers (if any) are better pooled and shared. Voluntary pooling of sovereignty on the one hand, and the centre ‘allowing’ specified powers to be exercised for the time being by devolved legislatures on the other, are two completely different animals. It’s not a distinction which the main UK parties are capable of making; for them, achieving their desired outcome (maintenance of a unified state) will always trump considerations of process and buy-in.

Thursday 16 February 2023

Welsh Labour too comfortable by far


One of the big issues surrounding the actions which we need to take to avoid climate change is that, whilst most politicians (excluding the fringe elements who choose to believe that the whole question of man-made climate change is either a hoax or a conspiracy) know what needs to be done, they fear doing it because they know that the actions required will be unpopular. For all the polls which show that most of us want our politicians to act, almost every individual action proposed meets with opposition. And sometimes that opposition even comes from the politicians professing their whole-hearted commitment to action, as in those who support wind energy as long as it’s in someone else’s constituency. A classic example of the problem is transport. There’s plenty of research which shows that whilst building roads alleviates congestion in the short term, in the longer term it simply leads to more traffic. Cutting private car use is one of those things which is popular in the abstract but unpopular in the specific.

To be able to tackle this sort of problem, two things are needed. The first is a government the opposition to which is divided and either unpopular or else trying to appeal to such widely disparate constituencies that the government is likely to be re-elected in one form or another, almost regardless of what it does. There are sham democracies – more like dictatorships as a rule – which more or less fit the bill, but the stand-out example which strikes me is our very own Welsh Government in Cardiff. It doesn’t matter how badly it does, on education, health, or whatever: a combination of deeply-held loyalty to one party over generations and an aversion to some or all of the alternatives makes it likely that Labour could do almost anything and still win. Well, maybe not quite anything, but almost. So if there were a government anywhere in the world which might try and call a halt to almost all road-building, Wales just might be the place. There will be protests, of course. People not getting their by-passes or long-awaited improvements will complain, and the ‘Welsh’ Conservatives will huff and puff in their usual irrelevant and hyperbolic style. But no-one will listen much, and Labour will still end up as the largest party after the next Senedd election, and continue to lead the government.

For the policy to be a ‘success’ however (rather than just avoiding any consequent electoral failure, which is a very limited definition of success) it needs to be accompanied by a rapid and dramatic improvement in the availability, comfort and reliability of public transport. And, ironically, the precise conditions which make it viable for the Welsh Labour government to get away with the first also, sadly, make it possible for it to fail on the second with equal impunity. It looks to be well on course to do so. It really isn’t enough to talk about improvements in the distant future, nor about responding to demand. Encouraging public transport use requires that transport to be available in advance of demand; use needs to be driven by provision rather than provision being driven retrospectively by usage. Fast, frequent, comfortable, reliable, with seats always available – these are key elements, even if expensive in the context of what is a largely rural and sparsely populated country. There is no obvious sign that the government understands this well enough to move away from the Treasury approach of a narrow cost-benefit analysis of each individual proposal.

Nor should we really expect that there will be. That sort of thinking requires the will to break free of the constraints imposed by the UK Treasury as an inherent part of the devolution settlement, and the comfortable – unchallengeable, even – position in which the Welsh government finds itself does not encourage that sort of thinking, even if its members were capable of it. The same factors – complacency, comfort, and unlikelihood of defeat  which make it possible for Wales to try a revolutionary approach also make it nigh-on impossible for us to see it through to its logical conclusion.

Monday 13 February 2023

Applying the same rules to all


One of the ever-increasing number of living former Conservative leaders, Iain Duncan Smith, has called for a Chinese official to be arrested and detained pending prosecution for human rights abuses, if he should set foot in the UK. Apart from the diplomatic niceties involved in detaining officials of foreign governments (however repulsive they might be considered to be) and especially so in the case of one of the world’s superpowers, it is a core principle of English law that any accused person is innocent until proven guilty. The evidence is strong in this case, but until found guilty by a properly-convened court of law, there has to be a presumption of innocence, and the offences have to be ‘alleged’ or ‘suspected’ in the meantime. I find myself wondering whether this beknighted individual has really thought through the consequences of his suggestion. If other countries adopted the same approach, wouldn’t that make some members of the current UK parliament subject to summary arrest and detention every time they set foot in another country? Apart from current court cases challenging whether existing plans conform to human rights agreements and treaties, there is clear evidence – not least from their own statements – that members of the government are actively planning to abrogate the UK’s duties and responsibilities in respect of human rights. Duncan Smith’s proposal might have some merit, especially if we could persuade him to take a nice little trip to somewhere which applies the approach he is proposing.

Friday 10 February 2023

Avoiding debating alternatives


Following on from yesterday’s post, blind acceptance of the Thatcherite view of debt and the household analogy for government finances aren’t the only way in which the media aid and abet mainstream politicians in preventing the discussion of alternative economic viewpoints. They also do it in their choice of words, a choice which embeds a particular economic and political viewpoint into any discussion before it even starts. Here are a few of the more common ones:

All the money in the government’s coffers is, apparently, “tax-payers’ money”. Leaving aside the fact that it isn’t even true (taxes are just one way in which the government raises revenue), it manages to imply that anyone who pays no taxes (such as children, people living on the state pension, or people unable to work due to disability or sickness) have no stake – and by implication, no right to a say – in the government’s expenditure plans. We could see it instead as money which the government manages on behalf of society as a whole, a very different proposition.

Taxation is always, according to politicians and the media, a “burden”. In truth, it’s the price we pay for living in a civilised society which provides services and support to its citizens. It’s no more of a ‘burden’ than any other expenditure undertaken by individuals, but calling it such encourages the view that it is somehow an unnecessary and additional expenditure which should always be minimised.

Things paid for out of that common fund collected by the government, such as the NHS, are invariably referred to as being “free”, with the implication that people are getting something for nothing. But it isn’t the only way of seeing things. In truth, few things are ever really ‘free’, there’s always a cost; it’s about how we decide to meet that cost. An alternative view is to see things simply as being purchased collectively rather than individually, with contributions varying according to ability to pay.

And that last point about collectively rather than individually goes to the heart of the ideological basis for the use of those terms. Those using them – and I include in that the Tories, the Labour Party leadership, and the Lib Dems as well as the media – are deliberately promoting an ideology under which individual action is always to be preferred to collective action. Whether it is ‘better’ to act individually rather than collectively is a valid matter for political debate, of course. But it’s not a debate which the individualists are willing even to countenance, which is why they choose words which close out the alternative from the outset. The result is Tory austerity now whilst the opposition attempts to argue, without ever actually saying it in so many words, that future Labour austerity would have a kinder face. The question we should always be asking ourselves, though, is “Cui Bono?”. By an amazing coincidence, it emerges that it will always be the most well-off who benefit from a more individualistic approach. Who’d have thought it?

Thursday 9 February 2023

Burying the nugget of truth


The trouble with bizarre and delusional rants is that any nugget of truth contained therein can easily be obscured by the patent nonsense in which it is embedded. Liz Truss’s opus magnus in the Telegraph on Sunday (widely covered in other media) is a case in point. The idea that the OBR, the Civil Service, the media and the markets are all run by some sort of left-wing conspiracy, and the suggestion that the only thing she did wrong was to fail to communicate her 'brilliant' ideas effectively, would lead anyone to wonder what her home planet looks like. But the nugget of truth is this: there is an accepted consensus around economic policy, shared by government and opposition politicians, the civil service and the media, and it is difficult for any politician, whether in or out of government, to challenge that consensus.

‘Left-wing’, however, it most definitely is not. It’s a consensus around ‘sound money’ and ‘balanced budgets’ which dates back to Thatcher and has broadly been followed by all governments since. Suggesting that Thatcherite economic policy is ‘left-wing’ tells us more about Truss’s own position on the political spectrum than it does about economics, but portraying Thatcher as some sort of dangerous communist is not a picture that many will recognise. It’s a consensus which the Tory-led government of 2010-2015 tried to embed as some sort of unchangeable basis for the future by setting fiscal rules and appointing the Office for Budget Responsibility to assess all government action against those rules. I’m sure that Osborne intended this to make it very difficult for any future alternative government to do anything different, although he probably didn’t expect a PM from his own party to be the one caught out. The fiscal rules were set by the government; the remit for its work was set by the government; and its members were appointed by the government. If a new government comes along – led by a maverick such as Truss, for instance – and leaves the same rules in place, to be assessed by the same people, working to the same remit, it should hardly be a surprise if, when that government then takes actions contrary to the fiscal rules, the OBR criticises those actions. And it’s hardly evidence of some great conspiracy – it worked as the Cameron government intended it to work, which is to force the government back to the accepted normality.

Whether the economic view on which it was based – that of the Treasury, the media, and Tory, Labour, and Lib Dem politicians alike – is the right one is another question entirely. And it isn’t only Liz Truss who’s questioning it. Last week, the BBC itself published a report on the way it covers economic policy (and Prof Richard Murphy has a brief summary of some of the salient points here) in which it accepts that it has given too much credence to prevailing orthodoxy and not enough to alternative viewpoints.  Specifically, the report accepts that the BBC (while making the valid point that it isn’t the only transgressor) has given excessive credence to the ‘household analogy’ for government budgets, without pointing out that it is opinion rather than substantiated fact and that there are other views. It’s not exactly coming from the same perspective as Truss, of course, but the underlying point – that there is an Overton window outside which debate is rarely allowed to wander – is the same.

None of that is intended to in any way support the insane proposition put forward by Truss that decreasing taxation on the rich would magically lead to economic growth and increase government revenues. All the empirical evidence suggests that borrowing money to give tax cuts to the rich ends up simply increasing government debt and financial inequality; but the infamous Laffer curve continues to draw support despite the fact that it is entirely unevidenced in practice. The fact that Truss was, and is, utterly clueless about how to generate growth, preferring to believe dogma than look at evidence, doesn’t mean that she was wrong in principle to worry more about overall economic performance than about specific levels of government debt. It’s a pity that her failed experiment, coupled with her tendency to see dangerous lefties under every bed and in every institution, will actually make it harder, rather than easier, to debate alternative viewpoints.

Monday 6 February 2023

Looking for the simplest explanation


For some strange reason, people have been mocking Boris Johnson after he called for Ukraine to join the EU. This could be based on a wholly irrational expectation that he would be consistent in what he says, despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s not as if it is particularly difficult to identify the inconsistencies, such as claiming that it was the EU that was provoking war in Ukraine (because we all know from so many of his utterances that the EU is the root of all evil), or that membership of the EU would have somehow prevented the UK from aiding Ukraine.

In fairness, there are a number of possible reasons why Johnson might think that Ukrainian membership of the EU makes sense.

The first is that he might actually see it as a way of undermining the EU. The size and relative poverty of Ukraine – to say nothing of what seems to be endemic corruption – would be a major challenge for the EU to absorb quickly. The logic of Brexit (although rarely expressed openly by Brexiteers) was that it was supposed to be just the start of a stampede for the door, leading to the utter collapse of the whole edifice. There are other ways of achieving the same thing – perhaps he’s being really cunning.

The second is that, as a poorer country, Ukraine would be entitled under EU policies to receive massive amounts from ‘Brussels’, although that policy depends, of course, on the richer countries being willing to pay in in the first place. It’s a bit of a cheek from a man who argued that Brexit was a means of avoiding paying into such solidarity funds, but with fewer rich countries left to pick up the tab, maybe he sees it as a way of damaging the UK’s competitors, such as Germany and France. Although it’s more likely that he simply hasn’t understood the dependency between making payments to the poorer and receiving them from the richer. Financial arithmetic was never his strong point, whether in affairs of state or in managing his own finances.

The third is that, driven as he is by an inflated sense of English exceptionalism, he genuinely believes that the EU is fine for lesser peoples and nations, but not for the great power which his fevered imagination tells him that the UK is.

On the whole, however, and following the dictates of Occam’s razor, I favour a very much simpler explanation – he was just doing what he has always done, and saying what a particular audience wanted to hear. Zelensky wants to join the EU, so Johnson supports him. He doesn’t really mean it, any more than he has ever meant most of the things he’s said. He assumed that, if he’s ever in a position of influence again (and I struggle to see how even the Tories could be that stupid), he will simply deny ever having said any such thing. It's not as if he has never done that before.

Friday 3 February 2023

Who's next?


When it comes to the misdeeds of important people like Tory Cabinet Ministers, the PM is keen for us all to know that he is firmly committed to the idea of due process and giving people a fair hearing. That, it seems, means that it is entirely acceptable to keep the miscreants in the Cabinet until an ‘independent’ investigator appointed by, answerable to, and only allowed to investigate according to rules set by, the PM reports at which point ‘due process’ means that the PM can decide whether to ignore the report or not. Because, when push comes to shove, the PM is judge, jury and executioner. ‘Due process’ also means that investigations into even quite minor matters can take weeks or months but it is important, according to the PM, to properly establish the facts.

When it comes to lesser mortals the same principles don’t apply, for apparently obvious reasons which somehow escape me. Yesterday, he announced that ‘illegal migrants’ would be detained on arrival and deported within days or weeks. Since there is no such thing, in law, as an ‘illegal migrant’, it might not actually be that difficult to round up all none of them and put them on an imaginary aeroplane: that wouldn’t take days, or even hours, to accomplish. That isn’t what he means, though – he’s using the phrase ‘illegal migrants’ to play to prejudices and bigotry rather than as a precise term which any decent lawyer would rebut. Whatever the nomenclature, his intention is clear. Desperate people, taking huge risks to get to the UK, will be rounded up and held in detention camps until they can be sent somewhere – anywhere – before any lawyers have any chance to talk to them and put their case before the courts in any sort of legal process. In order to facilitate this speeding up of the process, he is planning to recruit more people into the Home Office to fast-track the automatic refusal of asylum. Despite the alleged 'lack of money' there's always enough available to implement inhumane policies. Rather than speed up the process of giving people a proper hearing in a court of law, the plan is to deport them before their cases ever get anywhere near a court. ‘Due process’ and a ‘fair hearing’ mean two very different things to Sunak, depending on who the individual is. Top of his list for circumventing any sort of 'due process', apparently, are people without proper documentation. Some of us might feel that that is almost a classic definition of ‘refugee’.

He clearly thinks that the idea of rounding up thousands of people and holding them in detention camps for as many days or weeks as might be required will appeal to the sector of the electorate whose votes he needs and wants. That’s the only basis on which the policy makes any sense. Whilst detaining thousands of people arbitrarily without trial is the thin end of a very large wedge, history teaches us that many people are willing to ignore what happens to ‘others’ because they never believe that they might be next. But history also teaches us that if treating one group inhumanely and ignoring their rights doesn’t do the trick, the perpetrators will inevitably move on to the next target group. And people who so obviously think that ‘they’ have the right to govern as they choose and the rest of us must simply do as we are told can always find another target group.

Thursday 2 February 2023

Time to stop taking the medicine


Folk memory tends to associate ‘snake oil’ with the Wild West but, whilst it’s true that travelling medicine men peddling their quack remedies lasted longer in the US than elsewhere, the idea of patent ‘cure-all’ medicines wasn’t limited to the US. The UK had its fair share too; indeed, it was in the UK that ‘patent medicines’ were first licensed. Although the idea of snake oil seems to have been imported from Asia, and China in particular, where oil made from snakes was indeed used in traditional medicine to cure specific ailments, the various concoctions sold in the US and UK rarely contained any snake products at all. They weren’t completely ineffective either, however – many contained doses of cocaine, amphetamines and/ or opium, which means that they may well have helped people feel better even if they did little to address the causes of any pain. And people bought them – what’s not to like about a medicine which cures all ills? The appeal is obvious: no diagnosis needed, no need to see a doctor, just keep taking the potion. Having sold their wares, the travelling medicine men moved on to the next town before the inefficacy of their remedy became too obvious.

One of the closest twenty-first century parallels is to be found in the swivel-eyed faction of the Tory Party, a faction which believes that tax cuts are the solution to all economic ills in all circumstances. If there is deflation in the economy, the solution, according to them, is tax cuts; if there is inflation in the economy, the solution is tax cuts; if there is low growth in the economy, the solution is tax cuts; and if there is high growth in the economy, the benefit should be shared out through tax cuts. They claim that it is about making people feel good (the equivalent of that opium and cocaine in that snake oil) because they will have more money in their pockets and therefore feel able to spend more, but that isn’t quite the whole truth, and doesn’t address the ailment. Another way of putting more money in the pockets of those who need it most would be by ensuring that wages, pensions and benefits kept up with prices. Apparently, however, giving people more money by increasing their pay is inflationary, but taking less from those wages in tax is not. It’s a form of magical thinking (it’s tempting to wonder whether they’ve been taking their own ‘patent medicines’ with who knows what ingredients). In truth, of course, the modern-day snake oil salesmen know full well that their product is inefficacious. It’s not about ensuring that ‘people’ have more money in ‘their’ pockets, it’s about which people and whose pockets. In practice, it’s a surprising and little-known fact (or so they hope) that the people who benefit most from tax cuts are the people who pay most tax. The sort of people to be found supporting that strange faction of the Tory Party, by sheer coincidence. And the people who benefit least are the lowest-paid and those on benefits. But then again, transferring wealth from the gullible poor to the exploitative snake oil sellers was what the industry was all about in the days of the Wild West. Not much has changed in the interim.

Sadly, however, there is one important difference. In the olden days, people eventually realised that the medicine they had been sold was worthless, and governments started to regulate the content of what could be sold (what today’s purveyors of snake oil tend to refer to as ‘unnecessary red tape’ preventing people from exercising their right to be conned). And having sold all they could in one town, the salesmen moved on to the next in search of a new set of gullible people. The modern equivalent seem determined to stay put. There is another custom from the Wild West which we might usefully deploy in the circumstances – driving the exploiters out of town. We just need to ensure that those who replace them aren’t simply selling another brand of snake oil in a different coloured bottle.