Thursday, 10 August 2017
"Past time for sensible MPs in all parties to admit Brexit is a catastrophe, come together in a new party if need be, and reverse it."
"Let's be honest, if we had an effective electoral law leading Brexiteers would now be in jail."
"[The main parities are] paralysed and they are terrified of being called saboteurs, wreckers and people defying the will of the people."
(As reported here.)
These very apt comments on our present political scene come not from an enthusiastic and bewildered Europhile such as myself, but from the very heart of the Brexit team. Their author, a James Chapman, is a former political editor of the Daily Mail, (gasp); special advisor to George Osborne, (gasp gasp); and has spent a whole year as chief of staff for the Brexit Secretary David Davis in the clumsily-named Department for Exiting the European Union (it beggars belief).
It would be kind to suppose that Mr Chapman has now seen the light, but rather, I suspect, he has decided to "come clean." This is clear evidence that the Brexiteers know all along that Brexit will not be the raging economic success they proclaim, and that they achieved their narrow lead in the referendum by peddling a catalogue of gross exaggerations if not downright lies (of which the extra £350m a week for the NHS was the most blatant and influential). Their real motive remains open to speculation.
The question is, when will "sensible MPs" (and I like to think most are sensible) recognise that in their supine pretence that they are implementing the "will of the people" they are doing a grave disservice to the people they are supposed to represent, put their judgement before their job-security, and put a stop to this folly before any more time is wasted?
Then they can concentrate on our real problems: housing, health service, social care, climate change, a prison service which shames a country which claims to be civilised, the north-south divide. . . All of these, and more, are being put on the back burner as the present self-harming nonsense fills the agenda..
Monday, 7 August 2017
Yesterday I went to our multi-plex cinema to see this well-reviewed film.
Although I've been several times before I still haven't quite got the hang of modern cinema going - quite different from the good old days of "going to the pictures." The booking counter has now started designating seats and I spent quite a lot of time in the semi-darkness looking for 12A. Failing to find it I sat where I could, and eventually realised that 12A was not the number of my seat but the classification of the film.
Happily no-one claimed the seat I was in but this is another case of dispensing with useful employees - usherettes with shaded torches - in order to cut costs and boost profits whilst making life harder for the customers.
In a further complication the cinema now has reclining seats with a leg-rest attachment which enables you to stretch out. A tried every possible location for the lever to work it with. A girl in a neighbouring set kindly pointed out the operating button.
Most of the soundtrack was much too loud - we are approaching the "feelies" depicted in Huxley's "Brave New World" - but even so much of the dialogue was hard to catch.
The film is, I take it, an accurate description of the horrors of war. Deaths are not sanitised, and not every "warrior" is a selfless hero.
I cannot imagine anyone seeing this film wanting to leave the European Union.
Sadly, I suspect the more buccaneering Brexiteers will draw the opposite conclusion.
Wednesday, 2 August 2017
The observances for the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele have brought some of the Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries on to our television screens.
The first one I visited was in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, and in the last few years, especially while helping to write accounts of the Old Boys of the school I attended who were killed in the First World War, have visited several in Northern France and Belgium.
I count these visits as among the most moving and humbling experiences of my life: the astonishing numbers, the youth of so many who died, the immaculate care and attention given to each cemetery and each grave. And in addition to these the hundreds, maybe thousands, of square meters of walls with the names of the missing whose bodies were never found.
I have no idea how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is organised, and the websites aren't very informative on this aspect. But I suspect its directors, if it has any, are not on massive salaries, with out-of this-world bonuses just for doing what's expected of them, it is not encumbered with fancily-phrased mission statements, targets, OFSTED-style inspections or any other of the management-speak paraphernalia which today is deemed necessary to motivate even the humblest of organisations.
And yet it does a near-prefect job. No one would dare suggest privatising it: or would they?
Friday, 28 July 2017
I've just returned from a fascinating week doing "touristy" things based on Galway in the West of Ireland. I do not claim on the basis of a one week visit to have cracked the Irish perspective on everything, but here are four interesting pointers.
1. Brexit I. A leader in the Irish Times (does Murdoch own that one too?), on, I think, Friday 21st July, said something like
"We are sorry to lose our friend and close ally [from the EU], but that will not preclude us from picking at the carcass" (or maybe it was 'cadaver').
This struck me as being surprisingly friendly, in view of the bitter history between our two nations, but, in seeking to attract those financial services, and perhaps other industries fleeing from a UK no longer in the EU, essentially practical.
And good luck to them. Ireland shares one of the great "pull factors" which attract foreign firms to settle in the UK: the English language. And they speak it in a way I find absolutely charming.
2. Brexit II. Here's a letter published in the Irish Times on Thursday 27th July:
With the prospect of a UK-US trade deal likely to result in the flooding of the UK with US-produced GM food products, chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-laden beef, surely any "Ireland-UK friendly" Brexit deal will mean that we are also vulnerable to exposure to these products? I can think of a multitude of UK-based food outlets in Ireland where such exposure is not only a risk but a likelihood and wonder what the Government is doing to safeguard such a prospect.?
Yours etc, Kevin Nolan.
Mr Nolan may genuinely wonder what his government will do. I don't wonder at all about ours. . It will almost certainly be "Nothing " - a complete cave in to any demands that the US is likely to make in order to secure any sort of trade deal.
3.The Famine. By far and away the most moving experience was to see the National Famine Monument, a Coffin Ship at the base of Croagh Patrick in Murrusk, County Mayo. This depicts skeletons intertwined with the rigging of one of the ships which took the desperately starving migrants to a better world across the Atlantic - if they survived. For details see here.
In 1997, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Famine, Tony Blair "apologised" for it as follows:
"That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people"
Sadly the collective leadership of Europe, with the UK as one of the most culpable, will need to make a similar apology at some time in the future for our indifference to the sufferings of migrants and asylum seekers desperately, and across the Mediterranean dangerously, fleeing similar poverty today.
4. Equality. Opposite the splendidly modern but imposting cathedral in Galway is a sculpture by John Behan depicting Emerging Equality. In the inscription below is the definition:
Equality is but difference - respected and celebrated.
I'll try to remember that next time someone taunts those of us who believe in equality that we want everybody to be the same. Not at all: different, yes please, but still equal.
Tuesday, 18 July 2017
I have not actually seen the film "The Sense of an Ending" but was sufficiently intrigued by the adverts to buy Julian Barnes's book. There I was delighted to read, put in the mouth of the first person narrator, Tony Webster, sentiments that coincide exactly with my own:
Do you know something I dread? Being an old person in hospital and having nurses I've never met calling me Anthony, or worse, Tony. Let me just pop this in your arm Tony. Have some more of this gruel, Tony. Have you done a motion, Tony?* Of course, by the time this happens, over-familiarity from the nursing staff may be well down my list of anxieties, but even so. (Page 69)
Change "Peter" and "Pete" and that's exactly how I feel, not just in the context of old age and physical incapability, but in all contexts when discussing matters with people I neither know nor am likely to know. (eg buying insurance over the telephone, receiving letters from my Party's leader).
However, Barnes is right (presuming he is airing his own views.) that the situation is most acute in the medical context, when we feel at the most vulnerable. In that situation the last thing we need is to addressed by authority figures in a manner which takes us back to our days in the mixed infants.
So the free improvement for the NHS is that all staff should address people by their honorific (Mr. Mrs, M/s or something posher) and family name and that should be the default position. If patients then prefer their first name, nickname or something more familiar that's fine, but the initiative should come from the patient, not the practitioner.
I am not and never have member of BUPA or any other private medical scheme, but I'm pretty sure that in those places patients are" Mistered" and "Missised" routinely.
More generally, the English language, which is so prolific is most other areas (we have half a million words and counting, compared with a mere 100 000 in French) we have no equivalent of the French Monsieur,
Madame or |Mademoiselle, which can be used indiscriminately without any sense of status difference or servility. The French also get around the difficulty of distinguishing between Missises and Misses by addressing every woman who appears to be over 30 as Madame. (though that may be an unwelcome rite of passage)
In English, outside school, the army, police and high-end department stores , "Sir" and "Madame" sound deferential, and outside Buckingham Palace and detective stories featuring senior female officers I suspect no-one uses the abbreviation "Ma'am" (to rhyme with "jam," not "psalm").
I have no suggested alternatives to make but should be pleased if someone could come up with one to replace "Pall", "Mate" "Squire " (ugh) or nothing at all.
Of course, here in Yorkshire the unisex "Luv" covers all cases
*Barnes himself has dispensed with quotation marks
Monday, 10 July 2017
I spent last week walking on the Western edge of the Chilterns with an Anglo-French group. As is our custom we took a day off from walking midweek and did touristy things. In this location the obvious choice was Cambridge, where we took a ride on a punt on the river, which was very good value, and a walking tour round the colleges, which had the cheek to charge £20 per head ( though as "concessions" we got it for £18) which included all " entry fees to colleges," but as we didn't actually enter any, or King's College Chapel, was a bit of a rip off.
When we were told of the original of Newton's Principia Mathematicae in the Wren Library (along with the drafts and sketches for Winnie-the-Pooh), the college to which Professor Stephen Hawkins belongs, and pointed to the pub where Watson and Crick relaxed whilst uncovering the structure of DNA, my British bosom swelled with pride.
A quick search on the internet will tell you that Cambridge University has, at 61, more Nobel Laureates than any other university in the world (Harvard is next with 48), and there are lots of other distinguished literary alumni (E M Forster, C S lewis and Bradford's very own J B Priestley) in addition to A A Milne.
I do not subscribe to the view fostered by our school history courses that Britain has been "top nation" for most of the time since the reign of Henry VIII until the Americans took over, but the Cambridge experience is a reminder that for the past few centuries we have been among the leading nations for science, medicine, exploration, literature, politics, philosophy, engineering, economics and culture.
Britons have made serious and significant contributions to making the world a more civilised, stimulating and comfortable place.
Nor do I suggest that, post-Brexit, no one from these islands is ever gong to write another decent book or make another scientific discovery. But if we go ahead with Brexit not only shall we be economically poorer - that seems now to be almost universally accepted - but we are deliberately dropping out of the big league. The implications, especially for science, are particularly severe.
Friday, 30 June 2017
In her pre-election literature my Labour MP, Mrs Tracy Brabin, who was re-elected, made an explicit promise that she would fight for "full access to the single market, vital for jobs in our community." I quote her words exactly.
Yesterday, 29th June, a senior Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, moved an amendment to the Queen's Speech calling for the government to try to obtain exactly that, full access to the single market. Mrs Brabin did not vote for the motion. Some fighter.
Well, I suppose she's not the first MP to break an explicit promise, and in any case (I'll get this in first) who are we Liberal Democrats to cast stones?
But I am genuinely puzzled by Labour's attitude on this issue. On this blog I have consistently praised Mr Corbyn for his honesty, consistency , integrity and ability to enthuse others, and especially the young. I've welcomed his manifesto as "a breath of fresh air" and rejoiced at the progress he made in the General Election. I am still hoping that the tectonic shift he has achieved in our politics will lead to some form of progressive alliance and an end to the damaging Tory misrule.
The curious thing is that both Corbyn and the Labour hierarchy, including their responsible shadow minister , Sir Kier Starmer, have consistently argued that we should make the economy and jobs in the UK a priority in the Brexit negotiations, and clearly full access to the single market would be a considerable help.
Some Labour big-wigs could be anxious that some of their support could be disgruntled if access to the market involved a bit of a trade-off on immigration, but Corbyn himself has been refreshingly and , in my view admirably, relaxed on immigration, stressing the enormous benefits that past immigrants have brought to our economy, culture and society, and being reluctant to follow the Tories in their quest for draconian and unsustainable reductions.
It may be that the Labour establishment are timid about being seen to go against the so-called "will of the people" as expressed by by a narrow majority in a seriously flawed referendum. But even senior Brexiteer Boris Johnson assured us during the referendum campaign that voting to leave the EU did not imply leaving the single market.
So Labour don't have that excuse.
Yet Labour MPs were officially instructed to abstain on the Umunna amendment. 49 of them defied the whip and voted for it, along with all our gallant band of Liberal Democrat, the one Green and I think most if not all of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. But not the doughty Mrs Brabin.
I am saddened but not surprised by Mrs Brabin's lack of fight, but genuinely puzzled by Labour's stance. It is becoming increasingly clear that public opinion is moving against a hard Brexit. Here was a golden opportunity to run the government close if not actually defeat them and Labour just didn't take it.
Wednesday, 28 June 2017
We shall learn in due course whether the Grenfell Tower conflagration was the result of saving £1.5m by using a less expensive cladding material, or turning down the preferred bidder because someone else was cheaper, maybe both or maybe something else entirely.
However, there can be little doubt that any savings will already have been far outweighed by the enormous expense of paying for alternative accommodation for the displaced families, and the £5 500 per family grant to enable them to survive in the short run and re-equip in the long run.
Add to this the further cost of finding and paying for temporary alternative accommodation for the thousands of families forced to leave other tower blocks because they are now discovered to be unsafe. Doubtless the same firms that put up the inadequate cladding in the first place are receiving premium rates for removing it and will in due course be the preferred bidders for putting up the right stuff.
The message is that the combination of deregulation, (the "bonfire of red tape" is a grimly appropriate metaphor), cuts in council inspection services and the penny-pinching temptation to save "public money" by going for the lowest bidder, (in fact I think, though an not sure, that in some cases councils are forced to accept the lowest tender),leads both to false economies and public danger.
The financial costs are, of course petty compared with the horror of the deaths and injuries, and the massive anxiety and inconvenience caused to the families affected, both at Grenfell and elsewhere.
This terrible tragedy merely helps us to highlight how other attempts to cut public expenditure to the bone have actually boomeranged. An article by Frances Ryan, published in the Guardian back in April, lists the costs of various examples of Tory ineptitude.
- two private firms have been paid £700m to conduct Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments on disabled people. Four out of five of their rejections are overturned on appeal:
- the flagship Universal Credit system has been delayed seven times, is now five years behind schedule and has so far cost £16bn (sic) In the areas where it has been implemented the six-week waiting period has led to the need for mass emergency food parcels, and to rent arrears and evictions:
- councils have had to spend more than £3.5bn on temporary accommodation for homeless families in the last five years (that is, even before the tower block cladding scandal)
A contributory factor must be running down of both local and national government personnel through he outsourcing of services. This leads to the public sector being left without expertise and enables the well-resourced private sector to run rings round them in the drawing-up of contracts.
Saturday, 24 June 2017
Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash has a whole article devoted to this in yesterday's Guardian and it's well worth a read. Here's his somewhat dismal conclusion:
". . .my hunch is that Britain will probably end up. . .with some novel variant of Norway's European Economic Area deal, Switzerland's customised free-trade package or Turkey's membership of the customs union. It may be dressed up in Union Jack bunting, but it will effectively mean that we have second-class membership of the common market, that we must abide by rules we have no say in making, that we will continue to pay into the EU coffers, that immigration from the EU is only slightly reduced, [and] that we have to accept legally binding arrangements in which the European court of Justice still plays a significant role . . . A majority in parliament will probably swallow all this, in a very British game of muddling through."
In an article in the July edition of Prospect magazine the former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, Gus O'Donnell (a trained economist, not , happily, via Oxford's PPE, but at Warwick and Glasgow Universities) concludes:
"Even if the[Brexit] talks go well, the long term effect of Brexit will be a smaller economy than previously expected, which feeds through to lower tax revenues."
That's it: " a smaller economy," no ifs, no buts.
Spending the next two years negotiating towards this nonsense is crazy. MPs should pluck up courage, do their duty and put stop to it now.
Friday, 23 June 2017
Radio 4's soap opera, "The Archers," to which I am addicted, began in1951 as a vehicle for informing Britain's farmers of all the latest techniques and Ministry of Agriculture rules and regulations.. Whilst it continues to do this (you can easily pick out the boring bits) it has since explored various social issues, most recently the coercive relationship between Helen Archer and her husband Rob, which kept the nation, and me, agog for over two years.
In the last couple of weeks organic farmers Tony and Pat Archer, with their family Helen (above) Tom and recently discovered grandson Johnny, have been offered £1m for a three and a half acre plot of land on which rich property developer Justin Elliot hopes to build 18 houses.
I've no idea whether this is just an "East Enders" style plot to generate a bit of inter-generational squabbling within the family, or if it will develop into a serious exploration of the iniquities of land holding in Britain. I hope it will.
Tony and Pat were initially tenant farmers but some time ago raised the money via a huge mortgage to buy their land from the estate which owned it. Presumably they paid agricultural land prices, nowhere near the £1m (now reduced to £900,000 becasue of son Tom's interference) they expect to receive for this small corner.
So far in the script there has been no mention of paying capital gains tax on the massive increase in value. Indeed the family have already had detail discussions as to what to do with the whole million (half to Tony and Pat's pension pot, the other half to the development of Tom's business). Will CGT be introduced into the script at a later date, or don't farmers , largely Tory voters, (though Tony and Pat probably aren't), pay it?
I hope we shall be told.
Nor, as far as I know (I missed a few episodes while in Scotland) has Justin Elliot yet gained planning permission for the houses. Will he be"assisted" by friends on the council's planning committee?
And, when agricultural land increases enormously in value when a change of use is granted, why is not the resulting increase in value simply taken by the state? Maybe it is, in which case the family's plans are delusional. And if it isn't, why not?
We could even go on to explore why why supermarkets, builders and maybe others are able to sit on "land banks" hoping for better times, without paying any rates. According to the housing charity Shelter, there is at present enough land which has already been given to planning permission to build around half a million new homes, yet the building industry claim they are held up by obstructive local government bureaucracy and busy-body Nimbyists.
There could also be interesting discussions as to how many of the 18 houses to be built are "affordable." Will Ed and Emma Grundy be able to afford one?
There is a rich vein of instructive dramatic possibilities, even without going into the fundamental question of why land is privately held when "God gave the land to the people." I can hardly wait.
Wednesday, 21 June 2017
In the final days days leading up to the 2010 General Election we were warned by David Cameron and most of the press that if there were a balanced (actually they said "hung" ) parliament than the sky would fall in, the markets would collapse and the world as we know it would come to an end. So to avoid the calamity of a Labour government dependent on the Scottish Nationalist (horror of horrors) better vote Conservative.
Well, Gordon Brown's Labour government lost its majority, Cameron's Tories didn't win one, the Liberal Democrats, with 57 seats (oh happy days) held the balance, and the sky didn't fall in, the markets didn't collapse and the world as we knew it went on much as before
So promptly the mantra shifted that unless a "strong and stable" (though they didn't yet put it that way) coalition was formed within hours then all these financial calamities would surely happen. The leaders of the three major parties (yes, we were one of them then), all exhausted by their strenuous election campaigns, had frantic meeting, half heated offers from Labour came to nothing, David Cameron and Nick Clegg put together what looked like a good deal and within in less than a week the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed.
In none of this period did the markets even wobble.
However, in hindsight it has become clear that in all the haste the Tories had managed to run rings run round us. We had not absorbed the small print, or lack of it, so our dreams of Electoral and House of Lords reform, which looked to be assured, came to nothing, and we were trapped in an austerity regime which went against all our traditions and heritage (though this seemed to worry some senior Liberal Democrats less than most of the party).
To avoid similar fiascos in the future I suggested that we abandon the expectation that the day after an election the old PM would leave No 10 by the back door as the new one entered by the front, and spend at least 10 days in a transition period from one government to another, even if the same prime minister continued in office.
Strangely that is more or less what has happened since 8th June. There is still no sign of an agreement between Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists (apparently not such a horror) and the May government, the anachronistically named Queen's Speech (actually the announcement of the government's programme) has had to be postponed until today, and the sky has not fallen, the markets have not even wobbled (though the £ has dipped a bit) and, sadly, the world again continues much as before.
Although I have no sympathy whatsoever for the bigoted views of the DUP, the party founded by Ian Paisley, they are from their point of view quite right to hang on until they have cast iron guarantees from the Tories for getting whatever it is they want.
Lets hope this sets a precedent for the formation of future, and I hope, progressive, coalitions
Monday, 19 June 2017
Negotiations for Britain's leaving the EU begin today. It is perfectly obvious and cannot be said too often, that any Brexit deal, be it hard, soft or somewhere in-between, cannot possibly be as good for the UK, our economy, our international standing, our independence, our culture or whatever, as the deal we already have if we remain members. Generous European leaders have made it clear that that option is still open to us. If we had any sense at all we should take it.
Not a single one of the claimed advantages of leaving the EU stands up to serious scrutiny, be it £540m a week for the NHS, or a buccaneering Britain notching up trade deals with the rest of the world that somehow or other we are prevented from doing at the moment.
Our political class must be the most inept in history if they persist on this course of self-harm. One is tempted to say they must be "Mad, literally mad" but, given how it was first used a political context, perhaps that phrase is best avoided.
Friday, 16 June 2017
Official voices are rightly cagey about making pronouncements on the causes of the horrifying fire in Grenfell Tower, Kensington, but it seems to me that three options are available and one of them must be right.
1. The regulations regarding building tower blocks, their footings, fire precautions, materials, stairs, escape routes etc are inadequate, in which case we need some more and better regulations.
2. The regulations are adequate but they were evaded or avoided, either deliberately, through negligence, or to cut costs.
3. The regulations were adequate and adhered to, but the inspection system to ensure that proper standards continued to be maintained were lax or even non-existent.
In due course we shall find out which of the above, or even some of all three, put these poor people through such a horrible trauma and led to the unnecessary deaths of at least 17 and possibly 60 people living quietly in their own homes and minding their own business, something we are surely all entitled to do.
It should be noted that all three of the above scenarios involve the "red tape" of regulations and the employment of "officials" to ensure they are observed.
We need to remember this when right-wing market libertarians are for ever telling us that that less government regulation will free them to be more innovative, adventurous and profitable, which profits will eventually trickle down to the rest of us.
Maybe some red-tape is unnecessary, and certainly some is out of date. (I believe that until recently there was a law forbidding the display of liqueur chocolates in shop windows lest the young be tempted to become alcoholics). But most is necessary to keep us safe in our homes, on our streets, in our schools and hospitals, and at work.
It is hard to suppose that government cuts reduced the ability of a rich borough like Kensington to police adequately the regulations for which it is responsible, but that will doubtless be the case in poorer areas.. We also need to remember that there are large and influential building companies which doubtless spend a lot of time and money lobbying ministers and councillors, and it may be that profit sometimes takes precedence over public safety in their urgings.
It is public servants and public expenditure, financed by taxes, which keep us safe. These poor people may be victims of our delusion that we can have a top-quality public services without paying for them.
Wednesday, 14 June 2017
(It's probably too late, but my apologies to readers who saw an unchecked and incomplete version of this post which was published by accident - or some malfunction - yesterday)
In total 42.5% of those who voted in the 2017 election opted for the Conservatives. 42.5% of the 650 seats in the Commons is 276, but the Conservatives actually won 318, so, in proportionate terms. they have 42 more than their real entitlement.
Labour polled 39.95 of the total vote and won 262 seat, just 2 fewer than their proportionate entitlement.
We poor old Liberal Democrats polled a miserable 7.37% of the vote, but even that would entitle us to 48 seats instead of the meagre 12 we won. The even more badly-served Greens won only one seat rather than the 11 their 1.63 share of the national vote entitles them to .
Of course, no one, as far as I know, advocates a strictly proportionate representation in the Commons, but these figures show that not only has Mrs May's government lost its technical over-all majority: the majority it has over Labour grossly over-exaggerates its true support, and lessens even further its moral authority.
(I have not included the nationalists in the above calculations as they do not contest seats throughout the whole of the UK).
In the short run, this analysis explodes as myth the suggestion that the present electoral boundaries favour Labour. They clearly do not. So it is important that all non-conservative MPs get together to stop the boundary revision scheme which the Tories claim is necessary to restore fairness. This scheme would, in
fact, further distort the system in their favour.
In the long run of course we need an alliance to introduce an electoral system which offers a better balance between fair representation and a genuine connection between MPs and their constituents. The additional member system would be better than nothing. PR by single transferable vote in multi member constituencies would be best.
An announcement from Mr Corbyn that he is in favour of electoral reform would cause a further shift in the tectonic plates of British politics and produce another giant leap towards a fairer and healthier society. If, sadly, he deludes himself into thinking that Labour can, in the long run, win on its own (as did Tony Blair, after his dialogue with Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s) we shall be back to the sterile Punch and Judy politics of the past.
In the meantime, I hope the apparatchiks of all the progressive parties are holding informal discussions about some mutually advantageous electoral arrangements in case another election is called in the near future. We should not let this moment pass.
Monday, 12 June 2017
Well, last week's UK election result was certainly unforeseen. I spent election week on a long-planned walking holiday in Scotland, cast a postal vote for our local Liberal Democrat before setting out, and took time out from holiday indulgences to watch the exit poll. That the Tories were predicted to lose their over-all majority produced an unexpected surge of euphoria, followed by almost instant disillusion and a disconsolate retirement to bed when the first two results to be declared suggested that the exit poll was inaccurate.
Joy returned in the morning on discovering that the exit poll was right after all and the selfish Tory strategy had backfired on them with a vengeance.
However, given the disappointing performance of the Liberal Democrats, perhaps "modified rapture" (another quote from W S Gilbert) is a more appropriate response.
The main cause of joy is not the Tories' loss of their over-all majority, but the realisation that that our democracy is not, after all, up for sale, and not after all in hock to sycophantic Tory-supporting newspapers.
It should not be forgotten that the Referendum itself was called by David Cameron not in the national interest but in the hope of resolving an internal dispute in the Conservative Party. And this election, similarly, was called not in the national interest, but in the expectation that the Conservatives, with Mrs May at their head, would steal a stonking majority while the Labour Party appeared to be in disarray under an inadequate leader.
It was not to be.
Soon we shall find out how much more the Tories spent aver and above anybody else.(In 2010 it was £16bn compared with £8bn by Labour and £4.7bn by the Liberal Democrats). Then there was the vilification and ridicule poured daily on the head of jeremy Corbyn by the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Express. And, it has to be said, the very public and much publicised fact that 80% of Corbyn's parliamentary party had said they had no confidence in him.
Add to these the smears,and over-simplifications which appear to be propagated by the Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby, and what appear to many of us to be the biassed reporting of the BBC* in a cack-handed attempt to be even-handed.
I suspect it did not affect the over-all result but I was personally impatient of the constant harassment of Tim Farron for his views as practising Christian on abortion and same sex marriage. Both these issues are recognised as being matters of conscience not subject to party discipline so could be of interest to his own constituents but are of no concern at the national level since he accepts the established views of the party he leads . I wonder how much we shall hear much about these issues in the Tory press with regard to the DUP, on whom Mrs May's government hopes to rely, and whose official policy is against both?
Another particular niggle among the miasma of misrepresentation was that both the Tory Party and media went on and on about Corbyn's alleged support of the IRA (he supported talking to them, not their terrorist methods) and never once asked Mrs May how she felt about having joined the party which had called Nelson Mandela a terrorist? Nor, given her Church allegiance, did they ever ask her about her attitude to the Magnificat, which, as a C of E vicar, her father would have chanted, recited or read daily. Verses seven and eight are of particular significance:
[The Lord] hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.**
Happily, despite the distortions, and unequal publicity and spending, our electorate were not, for once, baboozled. Jeremy Corbyn's campaign, manifesto, leadership and honest personality have shifted the plates. An end to the misguided economic policy of austerity and a punitive social security system, the glorification of privatisation and a business free-for-all regardless of employees' rights and welfare, to be replaced by public investment to revive the economy, public ownership where suitable and genuinely progressive taxation, have all now become politically viable.
Of course the plates have not yet shifted enough: the Tories are still in office if not exactly in power, and we are still lumbered with Brexit. But Britain is now a healthier and happier place, and hope is on the horizon.
I am of course disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have flat-lined. Although I would have personally preferred us to campaign on an outright "No to Brexit, let's stop this nonsense here and now and get on with tackling our real problems" the compromise of accepting that "the people have spoken" but giving us the chance to speak again was sensible, if timid. However, it didn't take off. We are, for the moment, back to two-party politics, but a viable Liberal Party is an essential part of a Liberal democracy and we shall come back.
In the meantime we can sit back and enjoy the Tories tearing themselves apart, and try to make sure that the spectacle doesn't do too much damage to the most vulnerable in our society.
*Today presenter and former BBC political editor Nick Robinson , for example, helped in his youth to found his local Young Conservative Association and was chair of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Jeremy Paxman revealed, on his retirement form Newsnight, that he was a "one nation Tory." there may be some BBC commentators with backgrounds in the far, or even soft Left, but I'm not aware of who they are.
** Way back in the 60s when we Liberals were looking for an anthem or theme song to rival Labour's Red Flag and the Tories' Land of hope and glory, the Magnificat was seriously suggested.
Wednesday, 31 May 2017
The pundits and spin-doctors seem to have decided on a "no-score draw" for the Corbyn and May interviews with Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience. Neither party leader suffered a gaffe, and neither produced a triumph.
Although a dedicated Liberal Democrat I cannot claim to be an impartial observer as my sympathies are much more with the principled Jeremy Corbyn than the vacillating and opportunistic Theresa May. In my opinion Jeremy Paxman’s Rottweiler approach, his sneers and constant interruptions when interviewing Mr Corbyn were a stark contrast the almost jocular interrogation of Mrs May.
Yes, he probed Mrs May repeatedly on her change of heart from Remain to harsh Brexit, but allowed her, again and again, to get away with the facile response that she was loyally responding to “the will of the British people.”
This is obvious nonsense. It cannot be said too often, but mainstream media hardly say it at all, that of the people entitled to vote, 27% didn’t bother, 37% voted to Leave, 34% to Remain, and 16 and 17-year-olds, thought to be overwhelmingly for Remain, were not allowed to vote. Taking account of those not on the register, only about 25% of the adult population voted Leave.
The obvious questions would have been:
- why she, as a member of the responsible government, allowed into law such a shoddy referendum bill, with no super-majority such as is normally required for even a modest constitutional change in a golf club.
- and why she is determined to pursue a policy which in the view of the overwhelming majority of “experts,” whom we deride at our peril, will make us economically poorer, politically culturally and scientifically less significant, and socially less secure.
Friday, 26 May 2017
Sadly the "pro-staying-in-the- EU from the 48%" which was expected to prduce a Liberal Democrat surge does not yet seem to have taken off. There's still time.
Here's a simple guide to enable canvassers to respond if the Brexit topic is raised, or to introduce it if it isn't.
Be it hard, soft or middling, if Btitain leaves the EU we shall be:
- Economically poorer.
- Politically less significant.
- Scientifically and culturally more isolated.
- Socially less secure.
- and, if we trade with anybody at all, still subject to international jurisdiction, including the European Court of Justice (ECJ)
or, more poetically:
Of that there is no manner of doubt,no possible, probably shadow of doubt,
No possible doubt whatever. (W S Gilbert, The Mikado)
I. Economically poorer. Even though we haven't yet left the EU we already are. The 14% fall in the value of the £ means that we have to export more of our "stuff" in order to buy the same amount of "stuff" from other countries. This is already showing through in dearer foreign holiday, less foreign currency for your spending money £s, and higher food prices. It will get worse as our trading relations with the EU and other counties become less advantageous.
2. Politically less significant. In my childhood and youth (1937 onwards) we still regarded ourselves as a "Great Power," with Churchill sitting at the same table as Stalin and Roosevelt and planning the shape of the post-war World. This was probably a delusion even then, and was blown out of the water with Suez in 1956. But we remained, as a government study put it, "a leading power of the second rank " Our membership of the EU helps is to stay in the "big league" in relation to the US Russia, the growing significance of China and India, and South American counties. On our own, despite the bluster of Boris Johnson, we fall to the third or fourth rank.
3. Scientifically and culturally more isolated. Along with the BBC, our universities are still among the World's leaders. This is recognised by the EU, and our universities receive in research grants about double our contribution. Yet many researchers are already finding that access to research funds, less welcoming. And scientific research in particular is very dependent on international collaboration, and the free movement of personnel between universities. At the moment we really do play a leading role, but if we leave the EU we shall gradually move to the periphery.
4. Socially less secure. Whilst it is true that most of the so-called Red Tape which the Brexiteers claim inhibits British enterprise, actually comes from the British Government, that from Europe is particularly concerned with protection of the environment (eg clean beaches), health and safety at work, employment rights and, yes, human rights. Protection in these areas is unlikely to be as strong if a Tory government is left to its own devices.
5. International jurisdiction. Almost all international treaties, and particularly those regarding trade, have some "shared" mechanism between the partners for deciding on whether the provisions of the treaty are being observed. For trade with EU this is the ECJ, on which we are represented and for which we shared in making the rules. If we leave the EU but still want to trade with it (and at present it takes about half our exports) we shall still have to obey the rules (even though we no longer have a say in changing them and making new ones) and be subject to its decisions, (even though we are no long represented on it.) New trade deals, with for example the US, will likely be subject to the corporate courts made infamous in the TTIP proposals. These courts meet in secret and tend to act in the interest of the multi-national conglomerates rather than the consumers.
Wednesday, 24 May 2017
The conclusion of my previous post, written a week ago, that
. . . . Mrs May, far from being strong, consistent and a safe pair of hands, is a vacillating opportunist, quick to change her statements to the advantage of her party and herself. . . ., and skilful in the "dissembling and cloaking" against which she was warned in her Prayer Book upbringing
is amply borne out by her volte- face on payment for social care.
(For those unaware of the details, the Conservative Manifesto promised that people would have to pay in full, without limit, for any necessary social care, mainly in old age, until their assets were reduced to £100 000. This meant that property owners would, if necessary, have to to sell their houses, thus preventing their children or legatees inheriting what could be considerable sums. This produced outrage, mainly from the wealthy, and Mrs May decided that there would after all be a cap on the total to be paid for social care - and blustered this was not a change in policy, just a detail. A master-class in dissembling and cloaking.)
When the policy was published it was quickly dubbed the "Dementia Tax." Serve the Tories jolly-well right - when Labour introduced a similar (but better - more on that later) proposal just before the 2010 election,, the Tories were quick to label it the "Death Tax." Just another example of how childish our politics have become.
Happy this U-turn has put paid to the concept of Mrs May as a "strong and stable" pair of hand. "Weak and wobbly" has taken over and bears constant repetition.
Actually "Dementia Tax" is not a particularly accurate description as there are many reasons other than dementia for needing care in old age. For the moment my own potential problems appear to relate more to the bladder than the brain. And it's not just old age. As this article in today's Guardian points out, almost half of council's social care spending goes on adults below the age of 65.
I can't say that I'm particularly comfortable with the idea of the state shelling out squillions so that the already privileged offspring of owners of mini-mansions can inherit yet further advantages. It seems to me that there are two problems to be solved.
The first is paying for the care. If it is to be "free at the point of use" from the beginning or after a limited contribution from those able to pay, then this will require an increase in National Insurance Contributions (NICs) or general taxation. If health and social care services are to be merged, which seems a popular and sensible proposal, then increased NICs seem the logical choice. If the politicians are too frightened to attempt this, then Andy Burnham's proposal (the above-mentioned "Death Tax") of a levy on of some 15% on all estates, first put forward in a White Paper of 2010 seems to me to be perfectly acceptable. The important thing is to fund the service properly and ensure decent wages and conditions for those providing it. If the service were returned to public or "not for profit" hands then priority could be given to the quality of care rather than than profit-maximisation
The second problem is that of inheritance. The present threshold for liability to inheritance tax (formerly Death Duties) is £325 000, but rich people with assets well above this can afford clever accountants to find ways of avoiding paying. Given that inherited wealth is a major source of inequality I should like to see a revival of the good old Liberal proposal that the tax should not be on the estate but the recipients, and should be tax free provided the estate is bequeathed to different people in small dollops - say of £50 000 at today's values.
Just to show how even handed this blog is, I'll but on record that I welcome the Tory proposal to discontinue the Winter Fuel Allowance for comfortably-off pensioners (which I'd define as anyone still paying income tax, which incudes me) and would take much the same view of the free TV licence for the over75s (which also incudes me)
Thursday, 18 May 2017
I have received a large four-sided leaflet through the post. It says "THERESA MAY FOR BRITAIN" on the front page in very big letters, and devotes a second page to what purports to be a personal massage which concludes by urging me to "get things right by backing me, and voting conservative for my candidate in your local area" (my emphasis.). A third page highlights six debatable pieces of "progress" since 2010 (one is "WELFARE CAPPED to reward work") with the exhortation to "VOTE THERESA MAY ON 8TH JUNE." The final page warns that the election may not be a shoe-in for the Tories (on that I hope she's right) so I should make sure I vote Tory to avoid having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.
The word conservative is mentioned only twice: once in modest print with a union flag at the side of it, and once in the very tiniest of print in the legally obligatory "printed and published by " declaration.
This is by far the most blatant attempt in my lifetime to turn our British parliamentary election into a presidential system: May v Corbyn.
Mrs May is not the Conservative Candidate in my constituency, but presumably by not mentioning the actual Tory candidate's name the party can charge the leaflet up to national expenses, a trick they used even more blatantly in the last election and sadly got away with.
The character of Jeremy Corbyn has been tested to destruction by the media, but Mrs May is routinely presented by the sycophantic press as some modern-day Boudicca well equipped to stand up for Britain against the wicked continentals. This caricature does not bear scrutiny.
- Not once, but repeatedly, after her ascension to the premiership, she assured us, openly, unequivocally, without prevarication or qualification, that there would be no snap election: the parliament would run its course. It would perhaps be pushing beyond the boundaries of politeness to call this well brought up middle-aged lady a liar, but this was beyond doubt misleading. Why should we ever again believe a word she says?
- There are increasing signs that coming to the decision after clearing of her mind whilst walking in Snowdonia is a load of hooey, and that Conservative Central Office has been preparing for a snap election for some time. All their plans seem to have fallen neatly into place whilst the Labour Party has been caught on the hop. If this is the case Mrs May has been not just misleading but deliberately misleading.
- Before the EU Referendum Mrs May was an avowed Remainer. Here's just one snippet from one of her major speeches: "Remaining inside the European Union does make us more secure, it does make us more prosperous and it does make us more influential beyond our shores." You can read the entire speech here. So why is she now burbling the fantasies of her arch Brexiteers and insisting on leading us to the harshest of Brexits? Does she actually believe anything she says?
Now that she is Prime Minister the Home Secretary has been permitted to decide that that there shall be no enquiry into Orgreave becasue:"Ultimately, there were no deaths."
The evidence shows that Mrs May, far from being strong, consistent and a safe pair of hands, is a vacillating opportunist, quick to change her statements to the advantage of her party and herself, weakly submissive to the Brexit bullies in her party, and skilful in the "dissembling and cloaking" against which she was warned in her Prayer Book upbringing.
Monday, 15 May 2017
The Labour Party manifesto for the election has not actually been published but, but predictable scorn has already been poured on the leaked versions by predictable sections of the media (ie most of it). But to the less partial eye there's a lot to like. If the leaks are correct a Labour government will:
- Resume council-house building and make private sector house building an infrastructure priority
- Take the railway companies back into public ownership as their franchises expire;
- Ensure there is at least one publicly owned energy provider in each region;
- Guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK;
- Make no false promises about immigration;
- Establish a national and regional investment banks;
- Scrap the bedroom tax and punitive sanctions regime;
- Discourage short-termism and rocketing executive pay;
- Scrap university tuition fees;
- Adequately fund eduction, health and social care services.
Of course, we should like to see a less supine acceptance of Brexit, and in particular take with a pinch of salt the promise to "make retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union negotiating priorities." If that's the case why did they whip their peers to vote against such a proposal in the House of Lords on 28th February?
Personally I'd like to see a full throated promise to halt Brexit altogether, and to ditch Trident rather than retain it but be equivocal about using it. However I doubt if even the Liberal Democrat manifesto will have the guts to propose either of these.
But what we have to be clear about is that this is a perfectly sensible list of aims. It is a far cry from the much quoted "longest suicide note in history" of the 1983 manifesto. That one promised to take us out of the EU (oops, the Tories are now doing that anyway), nationalise the banks (oops 2, the Tories have done that as well with two of them), cancel the Trident programme (see above) and abolish the House of Lords (ah well, that's been tried and must go on the back burner for a while)
If the present manifesto is to be criticised I regret that it gives the impression that everything on the list will be done at once. True that the Attlee governments of 1945-51 took and largely achieved such an approach, but times, though economically much more strained, were different then. People were less cynical and much more confident of what the state can achieve. I'd prefer to see a much more " softly softly " approach and more use of "we shall try to" rather than " we will." That last point is even more relevant for the Liberal Democrat manifesto.
The alternative from the Conservatives of:
- Hard Brexit;
- Continued austerity ;
- Increasing inequality;
- Further privatisations;
- Bullying of the poor and disadvantaged;
- Reductions in the size of the state;
- Grammar schools;
- Toadying to the US;
- Endangered human,civil and employment rights;
- Unachievable immigration targets, along with an inhuman and even illegal attitude to migrants and asylum seekers;
And if the issue is competence, remember that it's the Tory policy of deregulation which brought about the financial crisis, their policy of "right to buy" which is is at the heart of the housing crisis, their policy of austerity which has delayed the recovery and starved and continues to starve the health, education and social services.
Only skilful PR and a sycophantic press keep them in the frame at all.
Friday, 12 May 2017
Yesterday I went to the audiology department of our local NHS hospital for a minor adjustment to one of my hearing aids. After she had dealt with it the technician told me I was due for another hearing test in July, but would not be sent for. It was up to me to "initiate the procedure" and "request a new pathway." (Who on earth dreams up this management speak?")
I would then be advised that I could go to the private sector for this. It is apparently mandatory that his option be pointed out to me.
Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green initiatives are often subject to routine ridicule, but we are expected to take this nonsense in our stride
Clearly this requirement has been imposed on the NHS by some fanatical neoliberal obsessed with the virtues of market choice.
But it is ridiculous. Like demanding that, before selling you a book, Foyles must tell you that you could buy the same volume at Waterstones. Or that before pulling you a pint of Tetley's the barman should remind you that you could get a pint of Sam Smith's at the pub up the road.
And I wonder if the playing field is levelled by requiring the private sector hearing aid specialists to tell their customers that equivalent support is available from the NHS free at the point of use?
Those why deny that further aspects of the NHS are up for privatisation if the Tories remain in government should take note of this straw in the wind.
Wednesday, 10 May 2017
I don’t watch Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning politics programme because I’m at church at the time it is broadcast and never seem to be able to find “catch-up” time. However I understand that two weeks ago (30th April) Theresa May persistently evaded Marr’s questions about nurses having to go to food banks because they couldn’t afford to buy food, but three times referred to the need for a “strong economy” and a government which “understands the importance of the strength of the economy.”
Well, who would argue against the desirability of a flourishing economy? But the impression Mrs May gives, and clearly intends to give, is that Conservative governments provide this strength and Labour governments don’t and won’t.
Sadly I suspect that most of the electorate accept this, but it is the triumph of slick PR and a lick-spittle press rather than an objective appraisal of the truth.
Simon Wren-Lewis, a professor of Economics at Oxford University, has attempted to provide such an appraisal on his blog Mainly Macro. I strongly recommend reading the entire article at
But in case you haven’t time here is an honest summary. (My own additional comments in Italics in brackets). The survey looks at the major economic decisions by British governments over the past forty years or so: 1979 - 1997 (Conservative Chancellors of the Exchequer), 1997 - 2010 (Labour), post 2010 (Conservative)
1. Geoffrey Howe’s (Conservative) 1981 budget. Imposed tax rises in the middle of a recession. Was famously opposed by 364 economists in a letter to The Times. Generally accepted to have delayed recovery by some 18 months. (This was the period in which Britain’s manufacturing capacity was reduced by a fifth, and unemployment rose to over 3 million, with the consequent loss of skills and export potential – not to mention devastated communities and much human misery)
2. The Lawson (Conservative) Boom in the late 80’s: a dash for growth (that produced little growth but lots of inflation).
3. Joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the EU (The ERM) in 1990 (John Major, Conservative chancellor). (Most of us welcomed this as a good move. The problem was that we joined at too high a rate – almost 3DM to the £. John Major was not necessarily to blame: Mrs Thatcher is said to have decided on the figure unilaterally, and imposed it on her cabinet. )
4. Ejection from the ERM. Black Wednesday,16 September 1992, Norman Lamont Conservative chancellor. ( The above rate proved unsustainable Britain was ignominiously forced to leave the ERM)
5. The failure throughout this period to use the revenues from North Sea Oil to set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund (as did, for example, Norway) (Instead the bonus was squandered on tax cuts and the funding of the high level of unemployment)
The ERM debacle led to the loss of the Conservative's credibility on economic matters and, eventually, to Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997.
Wren - Lewis highlights three major decisions made during the period of the Blair Brown governments and argues that all three were correct. They are:
Wren - Lewis highlights three major decisions made during the period of the Blair Brown governments and argues that all three were correct. They are:
1. The independence of the Bank of England (from 2nd May 1997).
2. The decision, engineered by Gordon Brown, not to join the Euro in 2003.
3. The fiscal stimulus (Alistair Darling Chancellor of the Exchequer) after the crash of 2007 which stabilised the economy and restored some growth.
Wren-Lewis excuses the Labour government’s failure to regulate the banks and financial sector more tightly, and thus perhaps avoid the crash of 2007, on the grounds that they were following the consensus view at the time. The Conservatives were arguing for even lighter regulation.
(Wren-Lewis does not mention the financing of public sector infrastructure projects, especially hospitals and schools, by Private Financial Initiatives, PFIs, which I believe is a major mistake for which we shall be paying over the odds for years if not generations)
On George Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor, Wren-Lewis praises the decision to set up the Office of Budget Responsibility, OBR, but condemns the decision to embark on austerity from 2010 as a “huge mistake.” He also points out that the decisions to leave the Single Market and Customs Union are not mandated by the Referendum but are “down to the Conservative government alone.”.
All in all, it is hard to argue with Wren-Lewis's conclusion that "[The track records ] show clearly that Labour tend to get things right while the Conservatives have created a number of major policy induced disasters."