Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Proiject reality

 I wonder what those who voted for Brexit, especially the less well off in the more depressed areas,  make of the news  in the past few days?

The government has publishedd a hundred page booklet on how to prepare for the non-delayed departure at the end of this year.  If we travel to any EU countries in future, among other things we must:

  • pay for  fully comprehensive health insurance as the European Health Insurance Card, EHIC, is no longer valid for us;
  • beware of roaming charges on our mobiles;
  • make preparations months in advance (and probably pay a fortune in vet bills) if we wish to take our pets.    
 If we run a business and wish to trade with EU countries we must prepare pages of time-consuming, and therefore costl customs documents. 

In spite of denials there is to be a customs barrier between the mainland and Northern Ireland.

The government is spending some £700m on a customs post-cum-lorry car park near Ashford in anticipation of delays.

And the "easiest trade talks in history" seem destined to hit the buffers and result in "no deal."

Meanwhile our government, released from the constraints  of Brussels bureaucrats and free to do as it likes, after having carefully  considered in January that it would be a good idea to employ the Chinese company  Huawei to contribute  to our 5G network, has noticed that President Trump has raised an eyebrow in disapproval so have changed their minds. So much for buccaneering independence.

And welcome to chlorinated chicken.

It's worth making clear that it's not the chlorine that's going  to damage us, simply that  US standards  of food production and hygiene are not as stringent as ours, so the chlorine is used  to compensate for this by killing off the bugs.

But it's not all that successful.  Every year one in six Americans fall ill from food poisoning: the equivalent figure in the UK, observing EU regulations and excluding imports of inferior quality, is one in twenty-eight.

Before the Referendum speculations about the above were dubbed "project fear."  The very same clique of charlatans now publish them as "project reality."

In this article:

the then foreign minister of Poland warns Mr Cameron against the folly of leaving the EU. Reading it now brings tears to my eyes.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Paying for it


Siren voices are already shouting alarm about the additional government expenditure necessary to keep the economy alive and kicking during and after the pandemic.  Shock, horror, we are warned:  "The Debt to GDP ratio is now over 100%, something that it hasn't been since 1963."

Well, I was in my mid-twenties in 1963 and I can assure them that it was a very good time to be alive.  Not quite as seminal, perhaps, as Philip Larkin's famous poem claims:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

The sexual revolution, and indeed most aspects of the "swinging sixties," rather passed me by.  I'm not sure now whether to be thankful that I was protected from indulgence or sorry that I missed out, but in the swing or merely observing, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating time of excitement, hope and optimism.

I was in the first few years of my teaching career, pleased with what I was achieving, looking forward to greater challenges to come, and without the slightest apprehension that I should ever be without a job.  Others in my age group who found that they had chosen the wrong careers on leaving school cheerfully jacked in their jobs, retrained and began others.

The Prime-Minister, Harold Macmillan, had told us that we'd "never had it so good" and there was some truth in that.  Employment was secure, the average cost of pint  was around 2/-(about 10p in the as yet to be introduced new money), and houses averaged at £2 670 . The £sterling exchanged at $2.8n nearly three times what it's worth today, and you could enjoy a continental holiday for £50.

The Labour Leader Harold Wilson, from nearby Huddersfield, assured us that life could be even better if we dragged ourselves firmly out of the Tory comfort zone into the second half of the century  and harnessed the "white heat of the technological revolution." In the 1964 general election I attended a Labour Party rally in next-door Cleckheaton, where their Deputy Leader, George Brown, concluded his speech by proclaiming that  if we did all the things he'd outlined "We really will build a New Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."  Even though I was already a member of the Liberal Party I stood up with the rest and cheered.

True, wages were measured in hundreds rather than thousands a year, and there were some unexpected hitches in achieving the New Jerusalem, but the over-all atmosphere was one of great confidence and optimism.

I do not remember anybody ever mentioning that the Debt/GDP ratio was over 100%

In our  economics courses there was a brief discussion of whether or not there National Debt was a "burden"and the standard answer was "No." Indeed, given the fact that growth and inflation would gradually reduce the ratio is was foolish  not to borrow to invest in the future.

This remains broadly true today, though with certain modifications,.

Then almost all the National Debt was held domesticly: it was money we owed ourselves, borrowed from those of us willing to lend (pension funds, insurance companies, financial institutions, holders of National Savings, even gamblers buying Premium Bonds) and paid back by the rest of us, including the lenders, through taxation.  Today, as a result of the "Big Bang" financial deregulation,  about 30% of the debt is held overseas, and if this generation of tax-payers doesn't repay it than future generations will have to.

Then continuous economic growth was seen as natural and desirable.  Today some of us have our doubts and would like us to look towards a Steaday State Economy, with progress being made by fairer sharing rather than further depletion of the earth's scarce resources and poisoning of the environment. Perhaps with more attention we can devise a method of achieving green growth.

On the plus side, back then the interest which had to be paid on the national debt was real. Today interest rates are close to zero if not actually negative, and so there's never been a better time to borrow.

It may be argued that government borrowing, which adds to the National Debt, is fine for investment purposes but not for current expenditure, and that much of what Rishi Sunak  is proposing to spend (eg the furlough payments) is in fact current expenditure.  True, but keeping the economy alive for the future  is, in the present circumstances, equivalent  to investment.

So let there be no worries about how to pay for it.  

Pay for it we will, as we have done in the past.  Personally I hope we will pay for it by intelligent and fair taxation rather than cuts in government expenditure.  A wealth tax has been mooted and supported by no less an authority than the former head of the civil service Sir Gus O'Donnell.  In an article in the Guardian last week, Polly Toynbee estimates that a wealth tax of 10% would yield £1tr, enough to pay for everything we want to do and more so.  

Even it that includes 10% for my modest wealth I'll by happy to vote for it.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Mini-budget a curate's egg

Even with a seemingly bottomless purse it was probably impossible for our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, in his summer splash out to keep the economy going beyond the pandemic, to please everybody..

One disgruntled group are the airline industries, who have received no extra help at all. I welcome this.  In the short run, until the pandemic is firmly under control, it is clearly vital to keep travel, and particularly international travel, down to a minimum.  In the longer run, given that air travel is both a major polluter and a major conduit for spreading disease (and there will be more pandemics) it is obviously responsible to severely restrict air travel  and shrink the industry.  Hard lines on those who work in it, but from boatmen on the Thames to miners in the 80s, industries have been forced to bow out, gracefully or otherwise, when their time has come.

The cut in VAT for the food, accommodation and attraction services  is to be welcomed.  It would have been a good idea to give  a special extension of the  furlough scheme to those involved in these industries, which will take time to rebuild as, we hope, the public gain confidence.  

The VAT cut also applies to tourism. I hope this is restricted  to domestic tourism and does not include overseas travel (see second  paragraph.)

The bribe of £1 000 for each furloughed employee retained at the end of the scheme seems wasteful.  Most of these employees would have been retained anyway, thus giving rise to what is known in the jargon as "dead weight cost," (paying for something that would have happened anyway.) It would have been more effective to double or treble the amount  but restrict it  to those retained beyond the first, say three-quarters.

A job creation scheme for the 16 to 25 year-olds, so that none experience unemployment, is very welcome These are the years when young people, full of energy, enthusiasm and hormones, need to be planning their futures both social and economic, and not idly skulking around and venting their spleens on society.  I hope there are not too many pointless retraining  schemes and dead-end occupations. Much  can be learned from the shortcomings of the Youth Training Scheme, YTS, of the 80s.

The cut  in stamp duty on house exchanges  up to the value of £500 000 doesn't affect the strapped first time buyer struggle to reach up to £250 000,(or the more modest £100 000 in this par of the country) becasue those are exempt already.  But the already established house-owner trading up to half a million saves up to £14 500.  This seems to be a generous bung to those who already have plenty of money. 

The argument is presumably that those who pay less in exchanging  their houses than they expected will increase their demand for furniture, redecoration or improvements, thus stimulating the economy (and also stimulating the house-exchange market, which  those of us who are not estate agents can do without)

Better to use the money to promote the building of social housing, preferably on brown-field sites.  Or use the money to increase social security payments, the  recipients of which would be highly likely to spend the money at home, thus stimulating their local economies.

All Chancellors of the Exchequer like to have a headline-grabbing gimmick. In my younger days it used to be a penny off beer.  Sunak's gimmick is a half-price pub lunch, but only in August, and only on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays.  I might try it if there's a decent test, track and trace system in operation by then, but I'm no holding my breath.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

#Putney: A C Grayling

 As our media concentrate almost entirely on  the coronavirus pandemic the government is working outside the glare of publicity to bring about an exit from the European Union way beyond anything that was suggested in the Referendum Campaign or promised in parliamentary debates before and after.  

The "easiest trade talks in history" look headed for collapse and a No-deal Brexit  The establishment of customs posts between Britain and Northern Ireland, something which "no British prime minister could ever contemplate" were discussed by a minister (of the Northern Ireland executive, I think) on Radio 4's "Today" programme this morning.

Concerned as we are for our health and safety until the pandemic is brought under control, the fact remains that leaving the EU, even if some sort of terms are achieved, will be a serious blow to our economy, culture  and international standing, and the arrangements with Ireland could easily lead to the break-up of the Union.

What are we to do?  Has the question already been answered?  Do we just sit back and let it happen?

The philosopher A C Grayling, in a polemic #Putney, written on the 22nd June, answers with a resounding "No!" 

The polemic is in three parts.  

The first argues that, although the Johnson government has constitutional legitimacy, in that it has achieved a majority of 80+ in the Commons, it does not have democratic legitimacy.  Its majority was achieved through a quirk in our inadequate electoral system. Only 29% of the eligible electorate voted for it and, given that: 

"we the people of the UK  have been taken hostage by group whose aims and activities are hostile to  our welfare and well-being," we have not only "a right... but a duty" to oppose it. 

The second part urges " a storm of continuous protest "  to MPs, the established media and social media, and argues  that:

 "[t]he effect of enough people taking one or more  of these forms of protest can be significant, and when some brave individuals do it , others will follow."

The third part argues that in the longer term the UK needs a serious reform of our constitution and political order, and this will not be achieved unless and until the progressive forces in Britain, who together are in the majority, unite. 

The first step will be to achieve a form of proportional representation.  The Greens, Liberal Democrats and nationalists have already taken measures to co-operate on this but the major obstacle is that the Labour Party, the largest of the progressive forces in our politics, and of which Grayling  is a member, has a clause in its constitution which requires it to contest  every seat. He therefore urges that this clause be rescinded, perhaps for only one election, so that PR can be achieved. He writes:

If [the Labour Party] does not suspend this clause, it wrecks the chance of a reforming coalition in Parliament by sharing out  the constituencies  among the opposition parties  on the basis of who  can really win in them .  It is this kind of practical tough action that Labour has to be lobbied hard to take. "  (my emphasis)

If there are any Labour Party members who read this blog I urge them to download #PUTNEY,, take it to a party meeting, present the argument and propose the constitutional amendment.

Non-Labour party members, please write to your MP if she/he is Labour, and  any Labour contacts, attach #PUTNEY and ask them to act similarly.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Liberation day - or danger?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the clique now in charge of 10 Downing Street, though first class campaigners, are not much good at responsible government.

In campaigning they won the Brexit Referendum against all the odds, and then an 80 seat majority in the Commons.

Sadly they use the same techniques in government as proved so successful in these campaigns: wild promises, exaggerated ( world beating) language,  distortions of the truth, careless optimism.

The choice of tomorrow , Saturday 4th July, for an easing of social restraints, is a prime example of this: a well-known holiday date, and a weekend - an attempt to launch the end of "lockdown" with a bang, when a whimper would be far more appropriate.

I wonder if any of the "blue light" emergency services, police, fire, ambulance and A&E departments were consulted about the date?  According to this morning's news they are preparing for the sort of mayhem that they normally expect an the last weekend before Christmas, when police prepare to dampen down public disorder and hospitals expect to be cluttered up with alcohol induced accident and injuries.

And now with the added danger of further spreading the coronavirus.

The safest approach to the easing of social lockdown would surely be  to try to make it as low key as possible: certainly not a recognised holiday date, nor any weekend, not even a Monday, because people would anticipate it and splash out the day before - a Wednesday seems the most appropriate.

But no: our gung-ho government wants a festive atmosphere to revive the national spirits (and take away attention to their inadequacies.)  Good campaigning stuff, but the very opposite of good government.

And having presumably having approved the date, if not actually suggesting it in the first place, Prime Minister Johnson has the gall to appeal to us to behave responsibly.

Fortunately, the weather for tomorrow doesn't look too good.  Perhaps the Lord is on our side after all.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

With leadership like this. . .

For most of my teaching career, when most young people were reasonably biddable, behaved themselves and did as they were told unless given psoitive reasons not to, if a class were unruly it was usually because the teacher was not very capable. If a whole school had a discipline problem it was usually because the head was weak

Much the same appears to apply to countries. 

 New Zealanders follow their government's instructions because their prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has led them well: acted quickly, treated them as adults,  given full and honest explanations, and followed her own rules. Their deaths attributed to the virus are  I believe still under 30, in spite of a recent new outbreak

Of course, New Zealand has only a small population. 

Germany has a population bigger than ours.  They have so far experienced  8 955 death, or 108 per million population.  Their Chancellor, Angela  Merkel,is reported to have led then with honesty and integrity.

The UK's record to date is a total of 43 232 deaths attributable to coronavirus, or 650 per million, six times greater than Germany.

The pictures which have appeared in the papers and on TV over the past two days, of thousands ignoring the physical distancing rules on of crowded beaches and at unauthorised musical concerts are frightening, especially to someone in my age group (more of that later.)

In response  Prime Minister Johnson has called on us "not to take liberties" and "to be responsible."

This from the man who set the example by attending a crowded rugby match  a the beginning of the outbreak, not only shook hands with people likely to have been in contact with the virus, but openly boasted about it, and gives enthusiastic support to his chief advisor Dominic Cummings who ignored the official government guidance by, among other things, going on a sixty-mile drive to a beauty spot with the excuse that he deeded to test his eyesight.

A letter in today's Guardian  suggests we describe  failure to respect government guidance as "the Cummings effect."  We call vacuum cleaners Hoovers and ballpoint pens Biros so why not? 

It is a truism that good leadership is by example.  

"Do as I say, not as I do," is rarely if ever effective.

If there is a further serious coronavirus outbreak the government  will doubtless try to blame it on the failure of the people to observed their rules, and will probably get support from the sycophantic press.  But part of the responsibility will remain with their inept leadership.

There is a very real sense that most of the people on the crowded beaches, at the unauthorised concerts , and celebrating Liverpool's success in the football league,are behaving rationally according to Tory mores:  put self- interest first and "there is no such thing as society.  ( "There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families, " to give the complete quote)

"Why shouldn't I put the interests of myself and my family first? If Cummings can do it why not me?"  is a logical  position to take.

Most of them will be under 40, probably much younger.  If they catch the virus they are very unlikely to suffer much and have only a very small chance of dying from it.  Many who do catch it will be unaware they have it - asymptomatic in the jargon.

But that doesn't  mean that they can't pass it on to those of us in society who are far more vulnerable.

A graphic in the July edition of Prospect Magazine shows that if some one of my generation, 80+, catches it we have a 500 times greater chance of dying from it than someone under 40.

So I for one will be avoiding crowds and continuing as far as possible with self-isolation, and would appreciate it if the less vulnerable would follow the guidance scrupulously.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Britain's reputation takes another nosedive.

What is it with the Conservative Party?  They are the ones forever boasting about our past and present greatness, that this or that is "the best in the world and the envy of the world" when it patently isn't, and some  "world class" other is actually third class, if that. (eg our managing of the coronavirus pandemic)

The one thing we have which probably is the best in the world and the envy of the world is the BBC, yet the Conservatives are constantly sniping at it and threatening cuts in its funding.  The wonderful World Service in particular is renowned as an impartial source of reliable news.

Yesterday the government announced that it is to "merge" the Department for International Development  (DfID) with the Foreign Office.  In other words the Foreign Office is to take it over and, instead of its primary function being the reduction world poverty, it will become primarily an instrument for promoting our foreign policy.

In the 23 years of its independent existence  DfID has developed an enviable reputation for effectiveness. 

Andrew Mitchell, a  former Conservative DfID Secretary  has commented:

"All the brilliant people  who have given DfID its reputation around the world. . .will leave.  We will at a stroke have collapsed the pre-eminent  and most respected engine  of international development in the world."

Both comments are probably a little bit over the top, but they point in the likely  direction.

They certainly do not point in the direction of a genuinely  Global Britain.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Deja vu all over again.

Thankfully the weekend's demonstrations evolved to the advantage of the Black Lives Matter and anti-racist causes and against the pro status quo far right. 

 In the previous post I expressed fears that there might be more statue toppling*, which  would  give the government the excuse to switch the debate from slavery and racism to law and order.   

In the event it was the other way round.  The BLM supporters behaved very sensibly, called off many of their demonstrations and where they were held they passed off peacefully  and without anything that could be described as vandalism. It was the far-right who behaved thuggishly, causing several violent  incidents  and arrests. Thus  any attempt to switch the emphasis to law and order places the right-wing  on the back foot.

The sports commentator who used the duplication in the title was held to ridicule (probably by Private Eye) but it sums up Prime Minister Johnson's decision to set up a Commission to examine the problems of discrimination in British Society.

We don't need another commission of enquiry: what we do need is action of the ones we've already had.  

A tech savvy junior civil servant  could put together  in a couple of hours a spreadsheet of the recommendations of the enquiries and investigations of the past 20 years** and allocate them to the appropriate  government department for action.  

A committed cabinet would  look at the list first and impose a time 
limit for the implementation of each recommendation.

Instead Mr Johnson's Commission has all the signs of being simply  there to kick the issue into the long grass.

That he has appointed a convener who, far from being impartial,  is already on record  for describing previous enquiries as fostering a "culture of grievance" and questioning the existence of institutional racism, suggests that the findings of the commission will have little credibility for those aggrieved.

Perhaps the most effective place to start the action would be with the defining and dismantling of the Home Office's "hostile environment."  

It shames us all.

*  Not least for poor old Baden-Powell, who founded, more or less by accident, the largest voluntary youth movement in the world, taken up at their own volition by  umpteen countries.  The movement provided a structure for "the good life" for millions of young people.  In my time as a Scout we  promised to obey the Scout Law, the fourth of which read:

 "A scout is a friend to all and and brother to every other Scout, no matter to what country, class or creed the other may belong." 

It sounds a bit archaic nowadays, perhaps, but is quite the opposite of racist.

** Today's Guardian helpfully outlines the recommendations of the most recent here.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Caunterproductive Protest.

The worldwide anger resulting from  the killing in police custody of George Floyd has so far been very supportive of the Black Lives Matter and anti racist causes.  In the UK it reached its apex in the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

A reappraisal of the teaching of history, the role of colonisation and empire and the continued of discrimination against minority ethnic groups in the UK and elsewhere are all now now firmly on the agenda.

We must now move on, not by forgetting about it and turning to whatever next catches the public imagination, but by keeping it on the agenda.  

Among other things we must bombard the media, MPs, councillors and other opinion formers with questions related to the issue.  

What steps are being taken to reduce racism in our police force, why are  BAME people over-represented in our prisons but under-represented  in the top professions, subject to proportionally more "stop and secrecy", than other groups,what progress is being made on the reform of the history curriculum etc?

Above all,how can our Home Office continue to justify its cruel and inhumane "hostile environment " policy.

We must not let the momentum created by Mr Floyd's killing run into the sands, as has happens so often before.

The danger is that further demonstrations  today, particularly if there is violence of vandalism, will allow the right wing to turn the debate from one of racism, where they are on the defensive, to one of law and order, on which public opinion will be on their side.

So no more statue toppling, please.  As argued  in the previous post, where it doesn't already exist we need a democratic way of settling who should be memorialised  by peaceful discussion, which will have the welcome bonus of being highly educational.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Embarrassing statues

Although I studied a little bit of history at tertiary level, and have taught it from time to time, I hadn't heard of Edward Colston until this weekend.  I've known since childhood of course that William Wilberforce of Hull, and therefore a Yorkshireman,  led the movement to abolish the slave trade.  

I've also known since childhood that:

"In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
 Columbus sailed the ocean blue" 

and so "discovered" America. I've only realised this weekend, by coincidence and from the book I am reading at the moment,* that he too was a slaver.  I presume there are  statues to him in Genoa, and probably in the Americas too.

So one of the lessons of the weekend is that we need a thorough revision of our school history syllabuses to include at least some of the "bad " bits as well as the "good" bits.

This is easier said than done.

 There's a lot of history and no-one's lifetime is long enough to get a grip on all of it.

A few years ago a Conservative politician (I think it was Sir Keith Joseph, not  a Yorkshireman but parachuted into a Leeds constituency) argued that we should cut out the "clutter" from the history syllabuses and just teach the important bits.  

He then went on to cite  such as (I generalise from memory here) the battles of Hastings, Bosworth, Trafalgar and Waterloo, Henry VIII and his wives and the shenanigans of various other monarchs, much  of which many social historians regarded as clutter, crowding out the time to be spent on how ordinary people actually lived and struggled  to improve their conditions.

For the "bad" bits of the UK's more recent  history I offer for consideration the Irish  Potato Famine and the Opium Wars with China, and as questionable, management of Indian independence.

As to statues of people considered great in their time but whose activities are now regarded as unaceptable, the former satellite countries of the Soviet Union have some experience.  I believe some designate an area  as a history park  and transfer such statues and other memorials there.  

We could have several of these in the UK, and local people could  debate what should and shouldn't be moved there. This should generate lively discussion contrasting the "good " things  the local eminence did with the methods used to achieve them.  Once a decision has been made there should be no further debate for 20 years. A democratic outlet such as this for people's feelings would avoid the need for vandalism.  

Once moved to the "park" information boards could be erected near the statue with the pros and cons of the person's life.  These would become an invaluable resource for the education of both young and old.

*  Human Kind, Rutger Bregman, p 94

Friday, 5 June 2020

Recovery: Germany shows the way.

The German government has shed its reputation for excessive monetary caution and announced what the Guardian reveals as a "€130bn boost for [the German] economy."

Highlights include:
  • temporary cut in VAT from 19% to 16%
  • €300 one-off payment for every child in Germany
  • €50bn  to address climate change
  • €25bn loan support for small firms
  • €10bn for municipalities struggling with lower tax receipts.
The cut in VAT recalls Alistair Darling's cut of the UK's VAT from 17.5% to 15% as part of his package to help us recover form the  2008 financial crash.  The package was successful and the economy was actually growing again when the Labour Party lost office in 2010.  George Osborne's first budget of 2010 knocked the growth on the head by, among other things, raising the VAT to 20%, at which level it remains today

I'm not so sure that helicopter money of €300 per child is the bast way of holding up demand and helping the poorest, but it shows the right spirit.  I would think that increasing all social security benefits, including child allowances for every child and not just  the first two, would be more effective on both counts.  If such increased were universal they could be taxed back from the comfortably off.

Support to address climate change and small businesses are obvious priorities for all developed economies.  I hope the (extra?) €10bn for municipality is money for they can spend on locally determined priorities, rather than on the instructions of their central  government.
Of course, we are not yet aware of the small print  that many or may not surround these measures. but they are certainly moves in the right direction.

Our own government has so far  been  prompt and  generous with emergency survival money, although there are criticisms that much has been advanced without conditions which would have encouraged recipients to adapt to an inevitably different future.  

For example, whey have the airlines been given help with out any requirement  to reduce their carbon footprint, or as suggested in an earlier post, do downsize considerably?  And why aren't firms  with profits destined for tax havens cajoled into keeping them in the UK and paying their share of the civil and physical infrastructures which enable them to make those profits.

We do not yet know what Rishi Sunak's plans are for our long term post-pandemic (and post Brexit?) recovery are, but he would do well to study Germany's lead and the criticism as well as the praise he has received for his prompt survival measures

Sunday, 31 May 2020

P.M.Johnson: how much longer?

The Conservatives have always been pretty ruthless at dumping their leaders once hey have outlived their usefulness,(Edward Heath, then  Margaret Thatcher) or proved to be useless ( William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, Theresa May).

The Tory MPs and faithful chose Mr Johnson as there leader, many I suspect against their better judgement, becasue he could win elections.  Well, he's done that: through a quirk of our flawed electoral system system, on a minority vote he has delivered a stonking parliamentary majority of 80.

Sadly, but predictably, so far in office he has demonstrated that he is not up to the job of leading a competent government.  Bluff, blustering generalisations, wildly optimistic predictions about a world class this and state of the art that, flashbacks to our "glorious" past and flattering references to the supposed superiority of the British character just don't cut the mustard when the going gets tough, as it undoubtedly has been for the past five months.

Rather than being world leaders, in dealing with the coronavirus we have proved to be among the world's worst losers.  There will be plenty of bluff, skilful PR  and twisting of the figures to try and disguise this fact, but the truth must eventually sink in.

So far the voting public are giving Johnson and his government  the benefit of the doubt: they are still between 15 and 20 percentage points ahead of the Opposition..

But the tipping point must surely be very near. Abraham Lincoln's aphorism:  "You can't fool all the people all the time," is bound to kick in soon,even with a largely supportive  press (though the Daily Mail is at last showing signs of breaking ranks).

When the pandemic fades into the background,  and the damaging effects of a messy Brexit are apparent, and Labour under Keir Starmer's leadership are persuaded to stop fighting each other and oppose the government instead, and the poll leads begin to dent, Johnson's days as PM will be numbered.  There may even be a few spectacular Liberal by-election victories to add to the mix.

Of course, Johnson's exit  will be given a good cover  story (as Eden's was after the Suez debacle), probably on the lines that his health was more badly affected by his brush with the coronavirus than was realised.  He may even be given an Earldom

Unfortunately there is no obviously competent  replacement. The favourite poster-boy at the moment appears to be Rishi Sunak - we shall see.  It's a pity the genuinely one-nation Tory Rory Stewart is no longer on the front-line scene.  

Although this lack of anyone with obvious leadership qualities which will serve the whole country could be seen as favourable to the  successful emergence of the progressive left, we must recognise that, with a parliamentary majority of 80 going to need an awful lot of by-election triumphs and bad polls to shift them.  We are likely to be stuck with a further four years in which the majority, and particularly the poor, will pay for the government's misguided fantasies.

We need a decent Tory to save us from this worst case scenario.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Danger: Cummings stil at work

Until this weekend the Johnson Government's handling of the coronavirus  pandemic  can best be described as incompetent.  

They failed to recognise its seriousness in the early stages, were complacent in their attitude to it, slow to react, headed off on a wrong tack, failed to learn from the experiences of other countries, missed opportunities for collective purchases  with the EU for vital equipment,  exaggerated the extend to our preparedness  and issued mixed and confusing messages.

Mr Johnson himself set a bad example by not only continuing to shake hands with people who might have been infected, but actually boasting about it, and attending as a spectator a crowded rugby stadium to watch an international match.

As a result Johnson himself caught the virus and, instead of receiving  the criticism he deserved for his arrogance, benefited from the respectful  approach of the Oppostion and his critics who observed the generous civilised custom of not hitting a man when he's down. 

 Some of the sycophantic press even managed to paint him as a hero for successfully "fighting off" the virus.

So far public opinion has given him and his government the benefit of the doubt.  The circumstances are unprecedented (yes indeed, as they remind us to the power of umpteen) and mistakes are bound to be made.

But the failure to sack Dominic Cummings for the flagrent breaches of the rules he helped to make are surely a failure too far.  

The precedents are clear. Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading member of the Scientific Advisory Group  for Emergencies (SAGE) resigned because he broke the rules and received a home visit from a friend.  Dr Catherine Calderwood, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, reigned because she broke the rules by driving to her second home.

I've no idea  whether the above two offered to resign, were asked to resign or were sacked but given a civilised cover-story. The reason for their action, voluntary or not, was clear: there is not one rule for "them" in the in-crowd, and "us," the rest of humanity.  

And that is as it should be.

It beggars belief (how I over-use that phrase, but what else is adequate?) that Mr Cummings is allowed to stay in post as a (the?) senior advisor to the Prime Minister.

And it is also dangerous.

Mr Johnson defended Cummings becasue he "followed his instincts."

That is carte blanche for  the less biddable among us (and there will be many), whatever further advice the government  gives, to say in future: "Well, that doesn't suit me: I'll follow my instincts."

However many will take that view we cannot know, but whether it be single figures of tens of thousands, the risks to the rest of the public will be increased.  More people will catch the illness and some will die.

So long as Cummings remains in post, any future advice we may be given will, in the eyes of some, have lost all credibility.

The government has, possibly on the advice of Cummings, (why else would they have taken an entire weekend to decide what to do?) announced today that it is about to publish new rules.  This is presumably  skilful timing in the hope that the debate will move on and the  Cummings debacle fade  into history.

The Opposition and media should not let this happen.  If common decency, consistency  and common sense mean anything at all, for the sake of all of us he should  be forced to resign.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Bank Holiday capers

The government is apparently considering  creating a new Bank Holiday "sometime in October."  It's not clear whether this is to be a permanent one, or just for this year to compensate us for the ones we've had  but have not been able to enjoy to the full because of the lockdown.

Neither is it clear whether this is to be an additional holiday, or to replace one of those that  occur at this time of the year, when there are three: Easter Monday, the May Bank Holiday, and the Spring Bank Holiday.  

The Spring bank Holiday was originally a religious festival, Whitsuntide, coming forty days after Easter.  As Easter, and therefore Whitsun, moves backward and forwards according to the phases of the moon, and the churches were and still are unable to agree on a fixed date for Easter, the  Labour government under Harold Wilson decided to "fix" the Whitsun holiday to the last weekend in May and call it Spring Bank.  

For a while lots of wags called it Wilsontide.  That's what we're having this weekend.

The UK's May Bank Holiday was introduced by  a later Labour government to coincide with the international celebration of the 1st May as Labour Day, or Workers' Day, though they adopted the custom of celebrating it on the Monday following the nearest weekend rather than on the actual day itself.  

The hard right has always been suspicious of the "workers' day celebration", particularly  as it was introduced here  on the initiative of Michael Foot, then Employment Secretary, whom the right have always painted as a "dangerous lefty."

It is entirely possible that the motive  for introducing an October Bank Holiday is a Tory ruse to abolish the one that has a connection with Mayday.  Worse, I shouldn't be in the least bit surprised if some advocate that it should be 21st October, the anniversary of Nelson's victory over  the French at Trafalgar. (A petition in favour of this was launched during the 2010-15 government, was open for six months, and gained all of 48 signatures - but that was pre-Brexit)

Whether as replacement or a new one , I do hope we get a Bank Holiday in the autumn, and that we hold it on the  24th October, United Nations Day.  If there is a new mood in the country once the coronavirus is past its worst, then a day to celebrate the UN would be a positive signal that we have put surly chauvinism behind us and now recognise the importance of co-operation with others in building a better world.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Tories haven't changed their spots.

Whilst the overwhelming majority of media attention is being given to the coronavirus pandemic and the attempts of leading ministers to pretend that the government is making a good job of controlling it, others are, in the background, quietly implementing their tired and failed neocon policies.

One is to squeeze the life out of and transfer any blame to local government.  In an article in yesterday's Observer Andy Burnham, directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester, reveals that, although the Westminster government promised to bear the cost of measures to take the homeless off the streets during the crisis, they have now reneged on the promise.  Apparently it applied only to those who were already homeless, and not those who become homeless during the crisis.  

So those local councils who jumped with alacrity to fulfil this humanitarian task are pushed even further into debt.

In the same article Burnham points out that in the same week that researchers have confirmed  the link between poverty and susceptibility to the virus the government quietly removed what is called  deprivation weighting from the way it calculates central government grants to local government.  The result, he claims, is that Knowsley, a deprived area of Greater Manchester, suffers a 39% cut and relatively affluent South Gloucestershire, presumably with lots of Tory voters, is blessed with a 30% increase.

It is hard to believe that this is a country with a Christian heritage where every  parliamentary day  begins with prayers.  Presumably they still do so at Eton. If so it hasn't had much lasting effect. 

Almost ignored now by the media are the post-Brexit negotiations for our future relations with the European Union.  We were promised a “best in class” Free Trade Agreement and a “fantastic new partnership. 

However, those who follow these things and in particular Professor Chris Grey in his detailed Brexit Blog, believe we are heading for the most damaging of all outcomes - leaving with no deal at all.

According to Grey the Brexiteers are beginning to believe their own lies. They  will most surely contrive to blame their non-attainment not on their own self-deception but on the alleged stubbornness of the European Union.
And the sycophantic press will swallow it.

There can nave have been a more depressing, indeed humiliating, period in the history of British politics.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Don't let the crisis go to waste

It is no surprise  that the Treasury's recently published options for economic policy once the pandemic is seen to be under control include continued government austerity, a public sector pay freeze and tax rises - but along with the Keynesian option of government-stimulated growth.

The proposal of yet another public sector pay freeze has received scorn. It  would  include the heroes of the moment: nurses, care workers, ambulance men and women,  and local government employees, including the bin men who still operate  with great efficiency here in Kirklees.

"They wouldn't dare: it would be political suicide."

Don't you believe it.  Actions which before Brexit  "No British prime minster could possibly contemplate," such  as a border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, were implemented and even applauded as successes in order to "Get Brexit done."

We shall not be far out of the lockdown before the hard-line Tory voices begin mouthing that the government's deficit for this year has reached more than £300 billion (as against an anticipated £55bn) and we can't carry on spending money that we haven't got.

Well, we now know that the last part of that statement isn't true. There is a "magic money tree:"  The government can spend as much money as it likes because it creates it.

Now to nail another lie: that it has to be paid back by future generations.  Not true: this is largely* money that we owe ourselves.  I happen to own part of the UK's National Debt becasue I have some National Saving Certificates.  I pay taxes to the government to enable it to compensate me for the loan by paying me interest.  The same applies to anyone else who has National Savings, a managed pension fund or even owns Premium Bonds.  What goes round comes round .  In economic parlance we call it the "circular flow of income."

So what should the government do once medical conditions permit?

Follow the pattern set by by our government after the last major crisis, which had dimensions even greater than this one, the Second World War.  

Then the government had paid the wages of a huge proportion of the workforce, the people in the army, who contributed nothing  to the consumer goods and services the economy craved, not for a few months but for five years.  A huge proportion of industrial capacity was devoted to producing goods of no consumer value  and the government bought the products, armaments, in order to prosecute the war.

By 1945 the government debt was enormous.

But  the government  had the courage to continue spending to expand the economy, the tax take increased  and the massive accumulated national debt brought down to manageable proportions, generally accepted as below of 60% of GDP.

A government of equal vision and courage would continue to spend, rebuild and  sustain demand and expand the economy.  Key public workers at the lower end of the pay scale  should be given the rises we all now know they deserve.  The private sector (low paid carers in hedge-fund-owned care homes, for example,) will be forced to play catch up.

Taxes should certainly be raised, but the government should be careful which, as some take more demand out of the economy than others.  VAT could be lowered, becasue that affects the poor most.  

The standard rate of  income tax could remain as it is for the moment, but plans made  to raise it gradually to 25%. The higher rate of income tax could be increased because the people who get that kind of money are more likely to spend it abroad rather than in this economy.  More importantly, we should take a long had look at taxes which don't affect employment and income: land taxes and wealth taxes.  And we should take an even longer and harder look at those who make money in this country and pay only modest taxes, and those rich people  and companies who avoid British tax by basing themselves in overseas havens

Inequality should be reduced by improving the social security safety.  The best way to do this would be to introduce the idea for which the  time has come, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) . 

The government has put its toe in the water for this by paying 80% the incomes of furloughed worker, and extended the scheme for anther four months.  The details to extend this to UBI would need to be hammered out, but the principle is that everyone, babies and school children, students, those in work and those out of it, and the retired, receive just enough to get by.  Recipients of the state retirement pension allegedly already get it.  Miyabe the current rate would be a useful benchmark starting rate.  The rate for babies and dependent children would be lower, and there would be extra for disabled people and those with special needs..

When they first proposed the idea the Green Party argued that it could be financed by ending  all tax allowances, so that all income from the fist pound earned, would be taxed.  The arithmetic of this has been hotly questioned but the Treasury, Universities and Think Tanks could do some work on it and give us some idea.

The late and very great one-time Liberal MP for the Colne Valley, Richard Wainwright, argued that effective politics was rather like sailing: you had to "catch the wind." 

The wind of change created during the pandemic is blowing in the direction of a fairer, better protected, more equal society.  The opposition parties should get together and formulate proposals to achieve one.  We mustn't let the Tories, sadly for the moment in power with a fake 80 seat majority in parliament, far from representative of the people, revert to the "normal" which so favours their backers.

* This is true for debts which is internally financed, which the majority of it is.  If we borrow from overseas we gain a chunk of someone else's economy, so then future generations will have to pay it back if this one doesn't.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Conflict rather than co-operation

There seems to be something in either our British psyche or our system that pushes us towards conflict rather than co-operation.

It is right that the government should make proposals, and that the opposition parties should, where necessary, criticise them and propose alternatives.  I'm happy with that: it is our system.

 Sir Keir Starmer is treading a fine line between probing the the holes in the government's often vague and inadequate proposals and avoiding too bellicose an approach which could alienate the electorate which is still largely supportive of the government.  The Tories are still 20 points ahead in the polls.
 Personally I'd like Starmer to be a bit more aggressive, but that's a matter for him and his party to judge.  I'd also like the Liberal Democrats to be heard but we seem to have been squeezed out.

What worries me is that the government seems to present its proposals without appearing to have consulted the people most deeply concerned.

On Sunday evening Prime Minister Johnson used prime-time television to address the nations (sic) on how we would ease ourselves out of the lockdown.  Unusually for the Tories, who are good at effective PR, the timing was bad, coming at the end of a three  day weekend.  Knowing it was coming many people made their own decisions about what he would say and spent three days cheerfully breaking the existing regulations.

The overall presentation of the broadcast was, except for Johnson's excessive use of gestures (it's as though he's trying to encourage a team of eight year old  footballers to maintain their positions and not all chase after the ball) well done.  There were clear graphics to show, in different colours, five levels of danger, a pie chart with moveable arrow to show the importance of the Reproduction rate, and to my relief, the approach was to be very cautious. He's clearly learned from his own experience of the illness.

So a pretty god over-all picture.  But, as often is the case, the devil was in the detail.

The most glaring howler was that people who couldn't work from home should  report for work the following morning.  For those who start at 7am that's less than 12 hours notice, with no indications as  to:

  • if they were lucky enough to be receive the 80% of pay from the government, would they continue to receive it if they failed to report;
  • how the employers would, in that short space of time, be able to make their workplaces coronavirus proof;
  • whether the employees would have the right to refuse to work and return home if the necessary safety conditions were not in place;
  • if they needed child care and hadn't time to arrange it, would employees still get paid, or even retain their jobs., if they didn't turn up?
Had I been an employee under those circumstances, and anxious to "do the right thing," as is my wont, I should have spent a sleepless night.

The following (Monday) morning Dominic Raab, Johnson's stand-in, said that the prime minister had not meant Monday, but Wednesday.  This morning, Tuesday, another minister (Matt Hancock I think) when questioned on this point, said loftily that if that was all the "Today" programme had to worry about, then everything was really fine.

I've read somewhere that the officer class concentrates on broad strategies and leaves it to the NCOs to fill in the details. maybe that's the trouble.

In the 1960s  and 70s we Liberals argued as part of our economic policy that there should be a joint  council  representing the government , employees and employers (effectively the TUC and the CBI) to hammer our ways to make the economy work more effectively.

Surely the same principle is appropriate here.  

Why is there no joint meeting of the government, unions and employers to work out an agreeable way of re-introducing normal economic activity?  Why is there no meeting of the Department of Education, the teachers' unions, and representatives of the many other workers involved in schools, to work out when and how and in what order to re-open the schools?

And why no "four nations" permanent council to devise a strategy for the whole UK if that is thought desirable? (though I think it isn't  - even in these circumstances  differences are possible and sensible.  That is what devolution is all about)

On the issue of re-opening the schools, as one who has taught every age-group from reception class (not for very long) to pensioners, I'd like to know the argument for starting the re-opening with the infants and year six.   Surely the  infants will be the hardest with which to enforce physical distance (not to mention their parents at the gate), and I'm not sure that 11 year-olds actually need special induction to transfer to secondary schools. Surely they could just watch "Grange Hill."

Maybe this decision to start with the infants is nothing to do with education at all.  Many countries with allegedly more successful educational outcomes than ours don't start school till seven.  But the infant group need looking after, so if they're back at school their parents or careers can go back to work, and the reason is the economy.  If so, we should be told.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

VE Day in perspective

One of the very few fortunate consequences of the coronavirus lockdown is that we shall be spared most of the excesses of flag-waving, military "shallahumps and shallahoops," and  evocations of past glories which were planned for the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

I was eight years old, going on nine, on the actual VE day in 1945.  I don't remember remember much of it.  With my parents and baby sister, we were on holiday in Scarborough, so it must have been Whitsuntide Week.  My mother had an aunt who kept a beading house in Scarborough and that was our regular port of call  in the Whit holiday. I think we must have been to Scarborough at least once before, because I can remember rolled up barbed wire on the beaches in order to deter invaders.  Or maybe it was our first visit and they were still there even though European war was nearly  over.

I have vivid memories of the evening.  We spent it roaming the streets with another Birstall family and singing "Let him go, let him tarry, let him sink or let him swim,"  which the Internet tells me is an Irish folk ballad.  Presumably it was a popular song of the era.  I was not then and am not now "into" popular songs. As a choirboy hymns and psalms, and now anthems and oratorios, are more my thing.

There was a palpable sense of joy and release at what was seen as the culmination of "our finest hour," although it wasn't really a culmination at all as the war continued for several more months in the Far East.

The achievement was considerable, and understandably at the time, exaggerated.  The tragedy is that we have continued to exaggerate it ever since.

We never did "stand alone."  

 Australia,Canada,New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other parts of the then Empire, the Free French, Poland and other Europeans, fought with us from the beginning. We should probably not have survived  the Battle of Britain were  it not for the very significant contributions of the Polish and Czechoslovakian Air-forces.

Then , of course by far the major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was borne  by  the Soviet Union, something that we far too readily forget. The Soviet Union suffered between 8 and 10 million military deaths, compared with 446 000 Yugoslavians, 416 000 USA, and 
383 600 UK (not including Commonwealth and Empire deaths).  A complete list of all combatants  is available here.

So it was a marvellous achievement, and a great relief, and a huge sacrifice for those families which had lost relatives and friends not just in the armed forces and merchant navies, but in the civilian bombings and other what we now call collateral damage.

But it was and is not a solid foundation for British claims of exceptionalism.

Yet, as Jo Grimond, a junior officer in the war  who became our inspiring Liberal Leader of the 1960s, writes in his Memoirs, (page 99)

"...we came out of the war being told we had saved the world  by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced  that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill  to rest on oars as far as work was concerned  and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."

We need now, after 75 years,  to see what was undoubtedly a very fine hour in perspective, and, perhaps, assess some of the humiliations we have as a nation experienced since. 

Which was the deepest:

  • the aborted invasion of Suez in 1956;
  • the belated recognition that we needed, after all, to join the the EEC, only to be rebuffed, not once but twice, by the French;
  • the ejection of Sterling from the ERM  in 1992;
  • the craven support of the US in their illegal invasion of Iraq;
  • the flawed referendum decision to leave the EU;
  • the abuse of our democratic  constitution by our government in attempting to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process;
  • our incompetence in  dealing with  the coronavirus, leading to our becoming one of the worst affected developed countries?
Take your pick, or make other suggestions.

Whether or not it is our deepest humiliation, there can be no doubt that in tackling the pandemic we have have been far from  world leaders,  but laggardly clumsy  followers.

It is high time we put behind us the pretence that in this that or the other we are "the best in the world and the envy of the world" (except that is for the BBC") and just settled for moderate competence, which involves working as co-operative partners with others.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Uses and abuses of statistics

Those of us interested in these sorts of things lost confidence in government statistics during  the years Mrs Thatcher was prime minister (1979 to1990). 

In the early years of her premiership the measure of people unemployed rose to 3 million.  This figure was alarming so the government set about manipulating the figures.  I can t remember all the details now and long ago threw away my notes, but there were something like 17 changes in the way the counting was done, and the effect of something like 14 of them was to reduce the figure.

Some of the devices were that school leavers were removed from the count, as were those not entitled to benefits (though of course they still had no job but wanted one.)*  Another ruse was to take people our of the potential workforce and place them on "Invalidity Benefit."  Twenty years later our government put a lot of energy into gruelling "fitness to work tests" to force them back in again, as tellingly depicted in the film the film "I Daniel Blake."

A hangover of this deception persists today when even the "impartial" BBC solemnly intones without question claims by  complacent ministers that unemployment is now the lowest for decades without mentioning that the count  no longer incudes anyone under 18, those in part-time work who want full-time work, those on zero-hours contract who would like something more reliable, and the hordes in involuntary self-employment (ie they have lost their jobs  and are hawking themselves round as "consultants" or similar and earning only a fraction of the minimum wage)

Be that as it may the reason for bringing this up now is the farcical claim that the target for 100 000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of April had been reached. 

The vital day was Thursday 30 April.  Earlier in the week the figure still stood at around 80 000.but Matt Hancock the Health Secretary boldly proclaimed that his target would be reached.

And lo and behold it was - not just reached but had leapt forward to 120 000.

A great national achievement , said Hancock., only for it to be revealed that this super figure had been reached by including 40 000 tests sent out in the post and not necessarily yet returned.  Over the weekend the figure fell back to the 80 000s

it is difficult to believe that this is happening, and now accepted as routine, not in a banana republic or emerging third world democracy with a largely illiterate population, but here in one of the most politically sophisticated and highly educated countries in the world.

Why are we not outraged?

Because, particularly since the referendum of 2016 and subsequent elections, political  lying has become commonplace.  We can no longer trust anything our government tells us.

I normal circumstances this is disgraceful.  At a time when the health of everyone in the country is seriously at risk, such "playful" distortions of the truth to achieve a PR hit are criminal.

*  My friend John Cole of Bradford has directed me to this detailed list of the changes:

Friday, 1 May 2020

Airlines a danger to us and the planet

In an earlier post I have argued that the airlines industry should take a haircut (jargon for be reduced in size).  It surprises me that this point of view is receiving little attention in the mainstream media.  

Easyjet has received a £600m Bank of England loan, Virgin Atlantic has, so far, been refuses half a billion, and yesterday British Airways announced swingeing cuts in its operations at  Gatwick (for details see here)

I understand the air travel from Gatwick is overwhelmingly for leisure purposes.
 Air travel is a major contribution to the factors that generate the climate crisis, and the “hypermobility” it permits has been instrumental in the rapid transition of the coronavirus from China to the rest of the world.

 Surely we can no longer justify endangering both the future of our planet and the peoples on it just to facilitate the desires of the those of us in the more affluent parts of the world for sunshine, exotic experiences and sex.  

 The need for business travel is also rapidly diminishing as modern methods of distance communications such as Skype and zoom develop.

The axiom made famous by the Former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel : "Never let a good crisis go to waste" should surely be exploited by the Green lobby, yet they (we)  green seem to be missing out on this opportunity. 

All the talk is on how the airlines can be kept in business until "normal demand is resumed."

Of course we must sympathise with potentially redundant airline staff, from highly paid pilots to underpaid cleaners. However, if we accept that the size of the aviation industry should rightly shrink I’m sure those currently dependent on it will be able to negotiate better compensation  from their employers and  their governments than , say, the UK’s miners managed when their industry no longer met contemporary needs

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Johnson returns - chastened(?)

As expected the right wing press has given an enthusiastic reception to Prime Minister Johnson's return to work.  The Express reports a "defiant " Johnson now "properly at the helm," which I suppose it thinks its readers will find re-assuring. The Sun is a little more circumspect, but reports in full how up-beat Johnson wants to "thank the people of this country for the sheer grit and guts we have shown" and likens the virus to "a mugger" we can "wrestle to the floor." 

It is not however, guts, grit and determination  (G squared D - the rallying-cry of the girls of Roedean as they cheer on their Lacrosse teams, or so I'm told) but careful planning and rational decisions which will minimise the damage the pandemic is doing to our society.

These are not Mr Johnson's strong suite.  The wasted weeks and poor decisions in the early days of the virus, during which Johnson  was in full commend (or could have been, except he apparently didn't bother to attend the key meetings) are the reasons why the UK is in the big league for deaths and damage rather than control of the virus.

There is, however, hope.  There are calls from right wing Conservatives, apparently anxious to resume normal economic activity as soon as possible if not before, and keep the profits flowing, to end the lockdown.  Johnson has, to his credit, so far poured water on these and opposed any end to the lockdown until there is clear evidence that the virus is under control.  Maybe his own unfortunate experience has taught him to be cautious.

What is clear from the progress of the virus so far  is that Brexiteer claims  that the UK, released from the constraints of EU membership, is about to bounce forward as a world leader are nonsense.  
Rather, we are a world laggards.  Our total of coronavirus deaths is in the 20 000+ range, along with Italy, Spain and France, although we had more time to prepare.  Germany, with a larger population, has deaths in the 6 000 region, Greece, battered by by austerity even more severe than ours for a decade, has, with a population of around 
11 million, kept deaths down to 134.

Boasts of British exceptionalism have become laughable.  We need to put the Brexiteer drum-bashing behind us and humbly accept  that we can learn from other counties and that a sustainable future requires us to work with them

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Looking wider

As the UK heads towards a place near the the top of the big league in terms of deaths from coronavirus our anxieties naturally focus on our own situation and those of our friends and families. A look at the international list of coronavirus cases and deaths shows that these are so far heavily concentrated in the world's richest and most highly developed countries - ie those where the majority of people live who can afford to fly. (See previous post)

The key phrase  in the above is "so far."  If this virus catches on in the world's poorer countries, without  the sophisticated medical services that we rich enjoy, the consequences are gong to be disastrous. The potential effects on those crowded together in  shanty towns just don't bear thinking about.

Of the developing countries (for want of a better phrase) in which I have a particular interest, Papua New Guinea, where I worked for most of the 1970s, has so far only seven suspected cases and no deaths.  Malawi, where I did a two-year stint with VSO, has had just two coronavirus related deaths.  The Solomon Islands, where a friend and former colleague serves as a Roman Catholic priest, appears to have neither cases not deaths.

Astonishingly, in spite of all the efforts of those who have campaigned for the cancellation of toxic Third World Debt, especially via Jubilee 2000, there are still 64 poor countries spending more on debt repayment than they do their health services.  For details see here.

International campaigns for further debt cancellations in view of the pandemic are ongoing and meeting with some success, but what has been achieved so far has been described as a "drop in the ocean."  To discover how to add your voice please go to the website of Global Justice Now.

As Rishi Sunak quite rightly sprays money around as water through a hosepipe in order to "save" the British economy and our affluent lifestyle, so we need to play our part in generous rather than penny-pinching attempts to save lives in the poorer parts of the world.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Deference due?

 By accident rather than design I was in the United States in October/November1980 during the Carter/Reagan election campaign.  Reagan was routinely ridiculed as inadequate and totally unsuited to the job, but to my astonishment  beat Jimmy Carter, whom I had expected to win hands down. Reagan even won  the popular vote, which is more than Donald Trump did.

However, what I found equally surprising was  that, once Reagan was inaugurated president in the following January, maybe even earlier, the tone of the media changed and Mr Reagan was treated with great respect, even deference.  He was now Mr President, Commander in Chief, and so on, and commanded the respect due to his office.  If his inadequacy was not forgotten it didn't get much of an airing.

Something similar seems to be happening in the UK today with respect to Prime Minister Johnson.

In discussing the need in a democracy for voters to get accurate and reliable information on which to base their voting decisions the philosopher A C Grayling writes:

"...a political order with a careless and uninterested populace, unprincipled politicians, hijacking of the constitutional process by a small group of vigorous and tendentiously motivated  activists and "advisers" ,driven by such extreme partisanship and individual polemical  imperative that it freely and frequently deploys falsehood, is in danger of creating, sooner or later, a dysfunctional state."*

This comes at the beginning of Chapter Four and Grayling does not say to whom or where he is referring.  Maybe later:  there are another three chapters to go. 

But if the cap fits?

It is right that at a personal level we should have every sympathy for Mr Johnson during his illness, and hope for his recovery.

But we should not forget how he achieved his current position.

Perhaps it is not surprising that he is receiving unctuous praise from his cabinet colleagues, even those who have previously declared him unfit for the job.

But as far as I can ascertain, no one in the media is mentioning that only a moth ago he was openly boasting of having shaken hands with people likely to have been exposed to the coronavirus. See:’s Eton housemaster, Martin Hammond, in 1982 school report

“I think he honestly believes" says the housemaster," it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” 

Well, now he's learned the hard way that he isn't.

I know we shouldn't "kick a man when he's down" and that is possibly why the media are showing restraint.

But these things should not be airbrushed out of history


*  A C Grayling, The Good State, Oneworld, 2020,  p44