Monday, 1 March 2021

The Budget: two suggestions

 

 Speculation about the contents of Wednesday's budget for once seems to concentrate on its  macroeconomic effect (how to keep the whole economy going) rather then self absorbed introspection as to how the already comfortable will be made even more comfortably off and  the marginalised left much the same or even worse off so as to induce them to try harder

There seems to be general agreement that, although government will have to pay off its debt sometime, "now is not the time."  

The Chancellor seems to agree but offers dark hints that that payback time is in the offing and he and the Tories are the ones to  act "responsibly" rather than spendthrift Labour, who simply cannot be trusted with the newly discovered "magic money tree."

This is a popularly held view and will in the next few days be pushed hard by the right-wing press.

The facts state otherwise.

At the end on the Second World War in 1945 the newly elected Labour government  under Clement Attlee inherited a public debt which was two and a half times the size of Britain's national Income.

 Undeterred by the debt the Attlee government went ahead with massive improvements to the then modest welfare state  and   introduced free secondary education for all, raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15, established the NHS, greatly improved the social security safety network, and much else besides.

This website:


https://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_deficit_analysis

drawn to my attention by a commenter on the previous post, makes interesting reading.

In spite of the huge pubic expenditure involved the Labour government also began tackling the public debt and by 1947, current public finances were brought into into surplus which, by 1950, reached 6.3% of GDP.

So both can be done.

Hence there's absolutely no logical excuse for regarding the present public debt, by comparison a mere 100% of GDP,  as an excuse for further cutting expenditure on our crumbling public services.  

 Rather we need to increase expenditure to make them fit for purpose.

 While personally not seeing any great urgency about bringing down the public debt, if back bench Tories are determined to fabricate a sense of urgency,  I offer them this advice:

When considering the necessary tax rises:

1.    1.Tax “bads” (eg pollution, use of finite resources) rather than “goods” (eg jobs, most consumer t expenditure).

2.    2. Tax those thing which impact least on current production and expenditure.  There’s plenty of choice: taxes on wealth, excess profits, land , financial transactions, capital gains, inheritances . . .

 

To these we could add a determined effort to force the international giants to pay their fair share towards the maintenance of the societies which enable then to operate, along with a determined attack on tax evasion and tax avoidance.

 

Monday, 22 February 2021

The spirit of 1945?

 

 

Sir Keir Starmer's speech last week in which he attempted to set the agenda for a post-pandemic Britain, called for a "spirit of 1945."  Others had made similar calls:  we must learn the lessons of the pandemic, they teach us that the the UK as at present run is "not fit for purpose"  and the public mood will not allow us to go back to the existing ways; there  must be a change of direction.

Well, I was only eight in 1945 and so not in a position to say too much about the  the public mood then, but history tells us that memories of the horrors of the 1930s depression had not been obliterated by the war, armies and the home front had acted heroicly, lives had been lost, and there must be no going back to the days of "want, disease,  ignorance, squalor and idleness" (the "Five Giants" which the Beveridge Reoprt identified as in need of slaying).

So the electorate firmly rejected government by the Conservatives, in spite of the heroic status they attributed to  their then leader, Churchill, and installed a Labour government under Clement Attlee which improved the  social security system, established the NHS,  introduced free secondary education and raised the school leaving age to 15, organised the building of lots of houses, regulated the economy to achieve full employment, and much more besides.

 And all of this while the government debt was 250% of GDP.  Today, despite the expenses of the pandemic, it is just over 100%.

Sadly, I can see few signs of a similar spirit in the public mood. Our  PR smart government is milking the success of the vaccine roll-out for all it's worth, memories  of the long list of failures, hesitations, empty boasts and outright frauds are fading,  and the public mood seems to be more interested  in resuming the opportunities to go on  holidays abroad, regardless of the damage travel does to the environment and  the spread of disease .

Such an optimistic outlook is understandable, but it is up to Labour and the other opposition parties to hammer home how Conservative policies have created the inadequacies that the pandemic has revealed:

  • the post-2010 obsession with "austerity"  which has squeezed out the spare capacity which would have enabled the NHS to deal with both the pandemic and the normal demands on it;
  • ditto the reduction in social security payments which means that the poorest, even some in employment,  have to rely on food markets for the bare necessities;
  • ditto the starving of the criminal justice system  and prisons, leading to an unacceptable backlog of cases and inhumane conditions in the prisons;
  • the virtually criminal shelving of the conclusions of the Cygnus  simulation of 2016 which demonstrated that there were vast gaps in the country's ability to deal with a pandemic;
  • the lax regulations which enabled flammable cladding to be used on Grenfell Tower and numerous other high rise buildings;
  • the squandering of public money on expensive contracts to the private sector which failed to achieve their objectives

Somehow the sycophantic press has engineered the mood that attacking these and many other failures is somehow unpatriotic.  Does anyone really believe that, if an even marginality left of centre government were making one tenth of such a shambles the Tories would keep quite about it?  

Not all all:  the right-wing press would be screaming blue murder.

That Labour government of 1945 made one huge error.  It financed a scheme to grow groundnuts (peanuts) in the then Tanganyika.  It began in 1947 and  was meant to alleviate the shortage of fats.  It didn't work.  The soil  was wrong, the climate was wrong and it was abandoned in 1951 after a loss of £36.5 million

 The Tories went on and on and on about "The Groundnut Scheme"  for at least the next 30 years.  In fact I shouldn't be surprised if it doesn't get the occasional mention today.

 So it is necessary for the progressive forces, led by Labour, to expose relentless  the inadequacy and unfairness of the Tory model and paint a picture of a future Britain with:

  • public services we scan rely on;
  • faith in the public sector;
  • secure jobs with decent pay;
  • adequate social services and payments;
  • affordable houses fit to live in;
  • effective action to combat global heating
  • committed participation in international affairs, including emergency and development aid to the poorest;
  • a constitution promoting fairness and maintaining the rule of law;
  • fair taxation to finance an equitable society





Friday, 19 February 2021

The hurt of Texas

 Apart from Alaska all the states of the US except Texas  have agreements with the other sates that, if one of them runs short of electricity it can "borrow" from one of the two the "Interconnections"  (common power grids. )  Texas, run by Republicans, has stayed out of the collective support system in order to retain its independence (sovereignty?) and avoid external regulation.  Sounds familiar?

 Now that their electricity supply has failed becasue of unexpectedly cold weather, which has frozen up the wind-farms and made it difficult to pump the natural gas which keeps the generators going, there is no external help.

Texan families  are thus huddled together in primary schools to keep warm, some are without even enough water to drink, never mind wash (electricity is needed to pump it) and those who have water are advised to boil it before drinking or cooking as the purification plants don't work without electricity.

 Now that the UK has cast off co-operation with our nearest 27 neighbours it's intriguing to speculate  on which need we might be left high and dry.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

US ABDICATES ANY CLAIM TO MORAL LEADERSHIP

 When someone is elected to the United States Senate he or she takes an oath:

  I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: (my emphasis) So help me God.

When a President is impeached the House of Representatives act as prosecutors and the 100 Senators act as Jury.  As such they take an additional oath

 I solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be,) that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of . . . . . . ., now pending, I will do impartial justice (my emphasis) according to the Constitution and laws: so help me God.

  That 43 Republican Senators chose to ignore the evidence of their ears, eyes and reason and so failed to find Donald Trump guilty of “inciting insurrection” declares to the World that they regard these oaths as no more that pompous mumbo jumbo. Their perceived self-interest (presumably they think voting to find Trump guilty would will damage their chances of re-election) takes precedence over their solemn assertions of probity.

Certainly since 1945, and probably longer, the US has been regarded as the leader of the “free world”.  It was a flawed model (Vietnam, racism) but nevertheless a beacon of hope for “less happier lands,”  a country  where reason, decency and honour (or honor) were prized and would eventually prevail.  The UK liked to think it held that position in earlier times.

Now that the leaders of the US have demonstrated that these ideals are just empty rhetoric and the government of the UK is in the hands of serial liars wreaking damage on its citizens to serve their own selfish ideologies, where is the idealistic young Russian, Chinese, Brazilian, Hungarian to look for a model where integrity is valued and fairness and the rule of law prevail?

France perhaps, Germany since 1945, Scandinavia, New Zealand?

There are now more authoritarian regimes in the world than liberal democracies.  The Whig style “onward march of progress” which we’ve assumed was in the ascendency since 1945 is now on the back foot. 

 Those 43 US senators have done a grave dis-service not just to America (Trump will now loom  menacingly and debase their politics during Biden’s first term a least) but to our hopes for a liberal democratic world. 

Our leader is shamed.

 

Monday, 8 February 2021

Reorgainsiing the NHS (again)

 

 The government's proposals, leaked over the weekend,  to re-reform the NHS raise some interesting questions.

First, credit where credit is due.  The proposals recognise that "in practice, the NHS has not operated as the market intended  by the 2012 Act. "

So, whereas the 2012 Act (aka the Lansley Reforms) built on earlier ones which tried to introduce market practices by talking about "purchasers" (roughly the the GPs) and "providers" (the hospitals and specialist services) by forcing different branches of the NHS to compete with each other, along with the private sector.

The new proposals intend to reduce the role of the private sector and enable the NHS to work more closely with local authorities.

Good.

The intriguing question is  that such a proposal has come from the present government, with its hitherto attachment to the neo-liberal ideology of the superiority of markets in allocating resources effectively, the greater efficiency  of the private over the public sector  (hence the eye-wateringly expensive contracts with Serco et al in running the Test, Trace and Isolate system) and has, until the vaccination programme began,  virtually sidelined local government  public health authorities in trying to combat the spread of coronavirus.

If this is conversion, then it is welcome.  Is it partly the resulte of the departure of Dominic Cummings?

Less welcome is the proposal to give the Health Secretary greater control of the NHS.  The tendency to concentrate power  in Westminster and Whitehall is sadly typical of both Labour and the Conservatives.  They seem incapable of trusting the locals bodies. 

 This is a long term problem. Maybe the success of local public bodies in the distribution the vaccine will put it to rest.  Let's hope so.

 Also worrying is whether yet another formal re-organization is the best way of going about things.  In other contexts we are told that NHS staff are exhausted by the demands of the pandemic, and that when it  passes its peak many will go on sick leave for both mental and physical rehabilitation, and quite a lot will actually leave. Do they need yet another  formal reorganisation on top of this?

Experience shows that the moment an organisation is to be re-organised , the principal pre-occupation of the employees, and particularly the managers, becomes securing their place, and preferably promotion, in the new regime, and doing what they are paid to do, in this case heal people, becomes of secondary importance.

 Cannot we just allow the unacceptable parts of the Lansley reforms to lapse (eg stop putting all contracts out to tender) and gradually introduce the new priorities? 

 

PS (added 9th February)

 

This article from 2018 puts supportive flesh and blood on my penultimate paragraph:

 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/23/nhs-suffering-repetitive-change-injury-ministers-reform-mania

 

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Politics and the Flag

 That "Patriotism is the last Refuge of the Scoundrel" is probably the best known of the sayings of Dr Johnson.  Apparently an outside advisory body has recommended to the Labour Party that it should become more overtly patriotic by wearing suites and wrapping itself in the Union Jack.

I admit to being rather in favour of formal, or at least, appropriate dress, but have been unhappy for some time about the ostentatious flaunting of Union Jacks by government spokespersons in their "briefings."  Flags may be useful in meetings between international leaders, but we know that Westminster is British - there's no need to spell it out.

As  a youngster I remember bing told that whereas the US, as a nation largely of migrants and relatively new, had to make an effort to instil love of country by such rituals as daily recitations of their "Pledge of Allegiance" in schools and the  ubiquitous  presence of their flag, we, as  a mature nation, established in 829 when Egbert of Wessex became King of "all England" (Wales, Ireland and Scotland were later accretions) and largely born here. didn't need such props.

Nevertheless we were expected to be patriotic, but in a quiet, understated way.  Our patriotism was a "given"

"Pride" and "patriotism" are both difficult concepts. 

 Pride is, of course, one of the seven deadly sins, so should be treated with particular caution. It seems reasonable to be proud of achieving something desirable largely by one's own efforts, such as running a Marathon in a good time (or in my case a half-Marathon in a modest time), climbing all the Munros in Scotland, writing a best seller (or even any novel), gaining the qualifications for a  job or being part of a winning team.  However, such pride should be tempered by awareness of the advantages, such as physical fitness, dexterity, brains or the contritions of others that made the achievement possible

There is not a lot of logic in being proud of something over which one has no control. such as having been born in Britain, or even Yorkshire. Nevertheless I confess to being slightly proud of both, but, I hope, only in a very low key way. If I remember I might wear a White Rose on what somebody has recently invented as Yorkshire Day (1st August) but wouldn't want to make much of a fuss about it.  More of a joke really.

Similarly with patriotism.  which my somewhat outdated dictionary (Concise Oxford  4th edition 1951) defines as being "zealous for the freedoms of one's country."  Given that, you can see why the Brexiteers are fond of it.  A lot depends on what you mean by "freedom."  Making decisions free of parliamentary scrutiny? Freedom to get rich at the expense of others?

We have seen in the nightmare  of the US under Trump how easily excessive nationalism -  "America First," "Make America Great Again" - can imperil  democracy and become the first steps towards fascism.

The progressive left, of which the Labour Party is the major part, needs to concentrate on the more mature virtues of co-operation and caring.  The early socialists were determined internationalists.  I hope the Labour  Party will remember that part of its heritage whilst keeping its undoubted patriotism understated - a given.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

100 000 Deaths: the Indictment.

The landmark figure of 100 000 coronavirus related deaths was officially reached yesterday though I'd thought I'd seen the figure earlier. The Prime Minister has said he is "sorry," and he may be genuinely so, but it has the sound of the routine "sorry for your loss" which features on funeral condolence cards rather than an admission of responsibility for errors made.

Though the 100 000 deaths indicates not just lives cut short but  several hundred thousand grieving friends and relative, the total figure itself is not a measure of the competence with which the pandemic has been dealt.  For that  a more useful measure is number of deaths related to population size.  For that, on yesterday's figures, the UK comes fourth from the bottom, above San Marino (194 deaths per hundred thousand) Belgium (180) Slovenia 163) and UK (148) .

The table of related countries then reads:

UK:               148  deaths per  hundred thousand population

Italy:             142

US                128

France:         109

Germany:        64

Ireland:            61

Canada:          50

Australia:          3.6

New Zealand:  0.53 

World beaten rather than world-beating, Prime Minister Johnson refuses the Opposition's repeated requests for an enquiry into why we are doing so badly.  His argument is that the government needs to concentrate all its resources  on dealing with the pandemic - an argument that held no sway when it was suggested that the  Brexit transition period should be extended for a year.  

Given that one medical expert has predicted  there could easily be a further 50 000 deaths before control is achieved, it would seem to be in the nation's best interest, if not the government's reputation, that an enquiry  be held now in order to establish what went wrong and how to avoid similar errors in the future.

 On the whole criticisms of the government can be summed up in the phrases: "always behind the curve," "too little too late," with trust diminished through  "muddled messages" and a "bad examples," from those making the rules but not obeying them

Here's an outline, as comprehensive as I can make it, of the issues which  should be examined.

  •  inadequate funding of the NHS as a result of the of the austerity programme since 2010, so that it lacks the spare capacity to deal with a major emergency;
  • the failure to act on the  report of the Cygnus simulation of a pandemic in 2018;
  • the consequent lack of personal protective clothing and an effective planning, implementation  and communications network;
  • the  casual, even flippant, attitude towards the virus in the early stage (Johnson shaking hands with people possibly infected and his attendance at an international rugby match,  Goodwood held);
  • the  delayed lockdown in the Spring, 2020, which it is estimated cost 10 000 avoidable deaths;
  • discharge of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes without first testing them for Covid;
  • failure to complete  the promise of laptops to households without them to facilitate home learning;
  • inadequate restrictions on visitors from outside the UK;
  • the failure of the test and trace system outsourced to the private sector and costing £12bn;
  • contracts for services and supplies to apparently ill-qualified "friends" rather than through established procedures;
  • the less than adequate furlough scheme;
  • the premature exit from the first lockdown;
  • the "eat out to help out" scheme which helped spread the virus;
  • Dominic Cummings's trips to the North East and to Barnard Castle, and failure to sack or even censure him;
  • the insistence that  most university students resume their courses on campus;
  • the failure to have a "circuit breaker" in the October 2020 half-term; 
  • the failure of the tiered lockdown scheme;
  • the offer of a five day household mixing period permitted over Christmas, only reduced to one day at the last moment;
  • schools forced to return for the Spring term (cancelled after one day);
  •  the delayed New Year 2021 lockdown.

Further suggestions will be welcomed

 A fair-minded enquiry will no doubt rate some of the above as understandable and perhaps excusable. Most important is to examine the alleged trade off  between preventing the spread of the virus and keeping the economy going.  

Without it, however, the government continues to repeat its mistakes and tackles the pandemic though up-beat language rather than evidence-led thinking