Wednesday 27 January 2016

Holocaust Memorial Day.

Here is an extract from Primo Levi's astonishingly laconic account of his time in Auschwitz, If his is a Man.  A "selection" (of those to be sent to the gas chamber) is about to take place.

Our Blockbaltester knows his business.  He has made sure that we have all entered [their hut], he has locked the door, he has given everyone his card with his number, name, profession, age and nationality, and has ordered everyone to undress completely, except for shoes.  We wait like this, naked, with the card in our hands, for the commission to reach our hut.  We are hut 48, but one can never tell if they are going to begin at hut 1 or hut 60.  At any rate, we can rest quietly at least for an hour, and there is no reason why we should not get under the blankets of the bunk and keep warm.

Many are already drowsing when a barrage of orders, oaths and blows proclaims the imminent arrival of the commission.  The Blockaltester and his helpers, starting from the end of the dormitory , drive the crowd of frightened, naked people  in front of them and cram them into the Tagesraum, which is the quartermaster's office. 
[. . . .]
The Blockaltester has closed the connecting door and has opened the other two which led form the dormitory and the Tagesraum outside.  Here in front of the two doors, stands the arbiter of our fate, an SS subaltern.  On his right is the Blockaltester, on his left the quartermaster of the hut.  Each one of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum  into the cold October air, has to run a few steps  between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory  door.  The SS man, with a glance at one's back and front, judges everyone's fate, and in turn gives the card  to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each of us.. . . .

. . . Like everyone else I passed by with a brisk  and classic step, trying to hold my head high, my chest forward and my muscles contracted and conspicuous.   With the corner of my eye I tried to look behind my shoulders, and my card seemed to end on the right. . .

As we gradually come back into the dormitory we are allowed to dress ourselves.  Nobody knows yet  with certainty his own fate, it has first of all to be established  whether the condemned cards  were those on the right or the left.*

Those on the left went to the gas chambers, and Levi survived.

As Giles Fraser, former Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, points our in a thoughtful article in yesterday's Guardian  there is an argument that  comparison of other events with the Holocaust "posits a moral equivalence that downplays the horror of the death camps."  Yet we must recognise that there have been genocides since 1945,  in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and, currently, Darfur.  All at base happen because one group regards another as less human than themselves.

Our casual attitude to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, "keep out" fences erected around some EU countries, the squalid conditions in the "Jungle" outside Calais, the pathetically small number of places offered to refugees by our government and our shameful opt-out of any EU sharing agreement, the incompetent treatment of applications for asylum, the hostile reaction of some to asylum seekers identified by red doors and red wristbands, are dangerous, if preliminary, steps down a slippery slope. 

Last Saturday I was engaged in (apparently animated) discussion with a friend on one of the main streets of Leeds.  A young man asked us if we were discussing politics.  We said we were and he asked us if we were for "In" or "Out" of the European Union.  Our enthusiastic response of "In" seemed to take him by surprise
"What about the refugees?" he demanded.

When I said we should treat them humanely and welcome them he exploded;  "African shit!" not once but several times.

When I said I had lived in Africa for several years and never met anyone I would describe in those terms I was told to "F--- off."

Given  the poison oozed out by some of our press, I suspect there would be no shortage of volunteers to be Blockaltesters  in this country should the opportunity arise.  We desperately need a civilised counter-argument and lead from our politicians before it is too late, and all of us need to observe the theme of this year's Memorial Day, "Don't stand by."

*If This is a Man, Primo Levi, pp 142/3,Abacus, 2013

Friday 22 January 2016


Immigrants, fear of them, suspicion of them or jealousy of them, played a minor part in last year's general election and is likely to play a major part in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership.

Those who claim to be worried about immigration remain unconvinced by the evidence that immigrants add to  economic growth, pay more into the government kitty in taxes than they take out in benefits or the use of public services, and are often highly innovative people who contribute enormously to our way of life.  Michael Marks, an immigrant from the Polish part of the then Russian Empire, who with Thomas Spencer started the famous Marks and Spencer's high street  retailer as a "penny an item" market stall in Leeds in 1884, is a good local example. There are dozens of earlier  and more recent examples in Robert Winder's highly readable book "Bloody Foreigners."

Those not reassured by the "macro" arguments might like to do a more personal inventory.  I've just done this and find that immigrants, or the offspring of recent immigrants:

  • sell me my morning paper;
  • drill and fill what's left of  my teeth;
  • clean my car;
  • dispense my medicines;
  • provide about a third of my health care (depends on which of my various ailments is being treated);
  • provide the vicar, brilliant organist, one of the two Franciscan friars attached to us, and a goodly (godly?) portion of the choir and congregation of the church (firmly C of E) I attend;
  • give me an opportunity to teach, as a volunteer, ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages), a highly interesting and entertaining weekly experience which makes me feel still useful;
  • run my second favourite restaurant;
  • provide me with my remaining few hours of paid employment.*
Altogether my life would be much less comfortable, and much less interesting, without immigrants.

*  This last group are post-graduate students on a business-studies at a local university.  In my view they shouldn't be included in the "immigrant" count as the overwhelming majority go home once they've completed their course. Their university fees and living expenses are a tremendous boost to our yawning balance of payments, and most return to their countries with a very favourable impression of the UK.  However, the government in its stupidity includes them  in the "immigration" count, tries to limit their numbers and discourages them from remaining for more higher degrees, research or opening up businesses here.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Cameron clueless on liberalism

Our prime minister, David Cameron,  claims that "We must be more assertive  about our liberal values."  To this end Muslim women who don't speak English are to be given lessons and, if they don't comply, they are to be deported.  This will be the case, if I heard the interview on BBC's"Today" programme correctly yesterday  morning, even if they have been here long enough to have had children here, and their children speak English.

Way back in 2007 ago Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash   defined liberalism as 

"a quest for the greatest possible measure  of individual human freedom, compatible with the freedom of others."

In short: "live and let live," providing you're not harming others' freedom to do the same.  The whole article is very pertinent to the present nonsense and is well worth a read.

Given Garton Ash's helpful definition , it is hard to see how  a minority of Muslim women who fail, or can't be bothered, to learn English, are acting outside our Liberal values, and they certainly don't merit this draconian threat. I suspect a good many of English-speaking  emigrants to the sunny coasts of Spain are in the same situation , and would be very upset if  the Spanish government threatened them similarly.

Yes, it would be nice, and socially cohesive, if immigrants to our country accommodated to our society, and I suspect the overwhelming majority of them do. How far his "accommodation" should go is a matter for debate.

But Cameron's intervention into an area of some delicacy generates recreations of both rage (indignation  is not strong enough) and disgust.

Cameron, product of the public relations industry, is a master of the craft of saying one thing whilst doing another. So rage because his is the government that has both specifically cut public spending on English for Speakers of of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, and has starved  and continues to starve the Further Education (FE)sector, the main provider of these classes, of funding. ( Education expenditure is supposed to be "protected " from cuts, but this "protection" applies only for eduction  up to the age of sixteen.  FE colleges and Sixth From colleges are all suffering from cuts.)

 Bradford is one of the areas where the figure of one in five  Muslim women not having competence in English is probably correct (the national rate is about 6%, or nearer one in twenty).  The staff of the FE college there are incensed at Cameron's intervention when they consider how their ESOL provision has been reduced over the past few years as a direct result of government policies.

But we must also ask why Cameron has intervened in this issue in such a high profile manner, or even at all. If the government has realised that the cuts in  ESOL provision are an error, then there is a Secretary of State for Education, and even a Minister of State, a Nick Boles, specifically responsible for Further Education and Skills, who could quietly and constructively have reversed the policy, restoring and even increasing  provision of ESOL classes for all who need then, and not just Muslim women.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Cameron is indulging in "dog whistle" politics, to appeal to he lowest and meanest instincts of the electorate: "We know that you don't like foreigners, especially those with different coloured skins and different religions.  So we'll get tough on them, as far as our veneer of political correctness allows. No need for UKIP: you can rely on us to sort them out."

There is nothing liberal about Cameron's intervention.  Rather it is politics in its lowest form:  a reversion  to the "nasty party" of Michael Howard and "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"  Cameron has brought shame on himself, his party and our country.

Sunday 17 January 2016

Europe: the "ins" and "outs."

We are led to believe that David Cameron's "negotiations" with the other European leaders are coming to fruition, are about to be crowned with success, and our "IN - OUT" referendum could be held this year.

Not only those of us who are enthusiast for the EU, but also, I suspect, most of those who are quietly accepting of it, realise this is all a sham.  Cameron will declare "victory" whatever the terms (as Harold Wilson did in 1975) and the whole show is not about Britain's future but a shabby device by the Tory mainstream to outsmart UKIP and the sceptics still in it, and hold the party together (again, as Harold Wilson did in 1975.)

It is tempting to give a shrug, murmur  plus ca change. . . , and wait for the whole nonsense to be over so that we can get on with engaging with the real problems facing the UK  - a yawning balance of payments deficit, growing inequality, a housing crisis, desperately low productivity, a shaky economy dependent on increasing private indebtedness - to name but a few.

Such indifference  would, unfortunately, be a mistake.  Supporters of our EU membership have to remember that, whilst we are legitimately bored by the whole silly pretence, to the "OUT" crowd it is an issue which puts fire in their bellies.  If we are to avoid the tragedy of a vote to leave we must stir our stumps and react with similar passion.

An article in the January 2016 issue of Prospect  by John Springford and Simon Telford, both of the  Centre for European Reform, highlights several facts, some of which, of which, I suspect, the "OUT" campaign would rather glide over.  They are (additions in italics are mine):

1       Financial Contribution

UK’s gross annual contribution for membership was £19.2bn in 2015, but we received in return £9.4bn in eg agricultural subsidies, regional development and the British “rebate.”
So the net contribution was £9.8bn, or about 0.6% of GDP (slightly less than the foreign aid budget of 0.7% of GDP)  (I calculate this is just under £3 per person per week)

But if we leave the EU we shall still have to subscribe if we want favourable access to the market (eg the European Economic Area, EEA option). 
Most access (the Norway option): would reduce our net contribution by one tenth (by, not to). 
Less access (the Swiss option): by about half.
(These figures are net of the economic benefits of trading within the community, which some estimate as around £3 000 per household per year).

2.  Access

Norway option: more or less as now, but with no say on making the rules and regulations.
Swiss option: preferential access on goods, but not services.
Word Trade Organisation (WTO) option (no preferential status)*: would face EU tariffs  like any foreign country, but would still have to abide by product specifications.

  3.  Immigration.

Both Norway and Swiss options would require our acceptance of  free movement of labour. (My emphasis.  UKIP certainly keep quiet about this)
Only by adopting the WTO option could we control immigration from Europe.  (We should still have to abide by international law, to which we have willingly subscribed, regarding refugees and asylum seekers)

 4.  Trade with the rest of the world.

We should be “free to do as we like" (under WTO rules) but would not inherit  the EU’s bilateral agreements.  Would have to re-negotiate with other trading partners, eg US, China, India, Brazil et al.  UK alone has not much bargaining power, as we are already pretty open to imports and inward investment

Inward Investment: will it go elsewhere?.   

   Probably.  (The UK is a major recipient of inward investment (eg from the US and Japan)

6.       The City of London
Outside the EU would be able to bolster competitiveness by lighter regulation (my emphasis).  But European banks may remove themselves from the City  because they would still be  required to observe EU regulations.

7.       Agriculture
Farmers would lose EU subsidies (the CAP)  but probably demand, and get, them again from the UK government.
Food could become cheaper (by 13%?)
UK would not have to observe EU ban on GM crops.

8.       Regional Development
Wales and Northern Ireland are net gainers.
Scotland breaks even.
England is a loser.
Westminster would probably pick up the tab.

9.       Universities.
UK receives some 20% of EU research funds (about double our share)
Biggest loss would be  loss of equal access by UK academics  to EU jobs (and EU academics to UK).

10.   Greenhouse gas emissions.
Not much difference.  EU targets are feeble and the UK is poised to miss them anyway.
11.   Security
Would probably be able to remain in European Arrest Warrant and extradition agreements.
In foreign policy main weapon is economic sanctions, and EU has much bigger clout than UK alone.

12.   Scotland.
A vote to leave would probably trigger another referendum on Scottish independence (and thus break up the UK?)

Comments (by Keynesian Liberal, not from the article)
 *Britain’s leaving would be a severe blow the European “true believers” in the EU project and could open up other bids for exit.  Hence we should expect a tough stance from EU’s negotiators in the subsequent discussions about access and other perks (so as to discourage any others.)  We shall not leave overnight: the exiting process could take up to 10 years

I doubt it the trading of economic facts and figures is going to have much effect “ on the doorstep.”  People tend to believe whatever supports their prejudice.  Although we enthusiasts need to have the above and similar facts in reserve in countering arguments, I  believe we should base our campaign on the “higher ground”:  continued participation in a brave political adventure, the success of 60 years’ peace in (most of) Europe, a say in our future, internationalism, the advantages to the young (Leonardo scheme for apprentices, Erasmus for students), the weak alternative as a satellite  of the US with no say in what they decide.)

We must not be complacent.  The "electoral reform" referendum started with a two to one majority in favour, but was lost.  We must not let this happen again.

Thursday 14 January 2016

The doctors' strike

I have little understanding of the points of contention in the doctors strike.

What I do know is that:

1.  Strikes are usually the result of bad management.

2.  When there's a 98% vote in favour of the strike, then this is no dispute whipped up by hotheads, but the result of serious and deeply felt misgivings.

The government's record on this issue is devious to say the least.  The Conservatives promised in their election campaign  in 2010 that there would be "no top-down reorganisation of the NHS."  This was no "small print" assurance, but was blazoned on large posters.

Yet within weeks after the election measure for the the "top down" reorganisation were introduced and it was clear that they had been in preparation for  months if not years.  Despite the opposition of the British Medical Association, the doctors' union, the "reforms" were pushed through.  The blundering originator of the reforms, Andrew Lansley, was replaced (he is now in the House of Lords and has what is presumably a nice little earner as advisor to a drug company) but his successor, Jeremy Hunt, appointed to  "smooth things out" continues the bullying tactics.

In yesterday's Guardian  Dr Tamal Ray ( also star of a televised baking competitions) writes:

Our eyes have been opened to the subtle dismantling of a healthcare system we believe in and this has inspired a movement for change.
Over the years, beginning with Mr Thatcher, the Tories have successfully emasculated the
 unions acting for blue-collar workers.  Let's hope they've met their match in the BMA, and learn the lessons.

Good management is not achieved by diktat, but by co-opting the workforce, or at least its representatives, into what sociologists call the "authority hierarchy."  Successful management, like government, is by discussion.  I expect the discussions over the next couple of weeks will find a solution to the immediate dispute, and that it will be so phrased that both sides can claim victory.

The lesson is that arrogant dictatorship from a government supported by only 36% of those who voted, and,  becasue of the low turnout,  only some 25% of those entitled to vote, is not a successful method of running a modern democracy.

Monday 11 January 2016

UK Politics - the unlevel playing field

During the  "official" period of the election campaign in 2010 the Conservatives spent £16.7m, Labour £8.0m and the Liberal Democrats £4.8m.  As far as I can see figures are not yet available for 2015.

The 2005 and 1997 elections were pretty unusual in that Labour's spending almost matched the Conservatives (with the Liberal Democrats trailing sadly behind ) but the typical ratio for most elections from 1945 until 1997 was that the Conservatives spent twice as much as Labour, with the Liberal/Liberal Democrats peanuts by comparison with either.

These figures are for the "short" election campaign itself.  Presumably expenditure between elections to "maintain the brand, "  pay officials in key marginals, and to assess public opinion (Lord Ashcroft's private polls in key marginals,) demonstrates a similar ratio.

It's interesting to speculate on what the results of  British general elections would be if the parties' spending power were more equal and we had a more balanced press.

This inequality of spending has been a running sore in our democracy for years and various attempts have been made to obtain a fairer system of financing the parties.  Until now all-party agreement has been considered necessary. The Tories scuppered the last attempt by walking out.

The Labour Party depends on the Trade Union movement  for  a large proportion of its funds. Attempts to limit the ability of the Unions to make these contributions have a long history,  based around the need for the individual trade union members to "contract in" or "contract out" of paying that part of their subscription which constituted the political levy.

Given that the Labour Party was created as the political arm of the Trade Unions, the initial assumption was that members would automatically pay the political levy unless they specifically contracted out of it.  In 1927, following the General Strike, the then Conservative government passed a law which required that  the levy should only be collected from those members who actively  contracted in.  The immediate post war Labour government reversed this  in 1946 and  "contracting out" remains the present status quo.

Today the Conservative government has a bill in the House of Lords which, if it eventually becomes law, will restore "contacting in" and, it is estimated, will reduce the income of the Labour Party by some £6m per year.  At the same time the modest state funding of opposition parties, known as "Short Money," will be reduced on the pretext  that it is right that the political parties should share in austerity and so be "all in it together."

Trade Union funding of the Labour Party is by no means perfect.  We Liberals have long argued that individual trade unionist should be allowed to opt for which political party their levy should go.  Not surprisingly, this plea has been ignored.

But in an imperfect world the present Tory action is a piece of blatant bullying: an abuse of the democratic process, a lack of respect for minorities and failure to accept that a healthy democracy requires healthy opposition.  It is also blatantly unfair, in that there is to be no requirement for shareholders to have any say whatsoever in the hefty subventions so many large firms  make to the Conservative Party.

My first lecturer in politics, way back in the 1950s, was a Mr Checkanovski, clearly not a native.  He made much of the importance of the "British sense of fair play" in the operation of our constitution.  At the time I glowed with quiet pride.  Not any more.

Here's hoping that the House of Lords will show that some sense of decency still survives and throw out this  bullying measure.

Sunday 10 January 2016

The luck of George Osborne

Luck plays a big part in politics.

Harold Wilson was unlucky in that, a few days before the 1970 election, international trade figures were published with showed a large (for those days) deficit.  The reason was that we'd just paid the bill for a Jumbo Jet bought from the US but that part of the news was successfully smothered by the Tory PR machine and Labour lost the election.

Then, when Labour returned to office in 1974, poor Denis Healey, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, inherited both the inflationary consequences of  the Tories' Barber Boom and the massive hike in oil prices as the result of the formation of OPEC. He was forced to borrow from the IMF and, although all the money was paid back before the subsequent election in 1979, that news too somehow didn't percolate down to the electorate,  Mrs Thatcher won,  the post war consensus was abandoned, neoliberal economics flourished, and our society has become more and more divided ever since.

No such ill luck for George Osborne: indeed rather the reverse.

With Osborne's back to the wall over tax credits last Autumn, revised figures for anticipated tax receipts enabled him to abandon the cuts which had been so absolutely vital only a few weeks before.

A few days before Christmas it was announced that government borrowing, which he is pledged to reduce come what may,  had already almost  reached the limit for the year, even thought here were still four months to go.  Then the following day it was revealed that the growth rate for the July - September quarter had been only 0.4% rather than the projected 0.5%  and the rate achieved  the previous quarter had been revised downwards from  0.7% to 0.5%.

Happily for Mr Osborne the nation was already in Christmas party mood (indeed most were already on holiday)and few gave the news much attention.

Clearly Mr Osborne has given it some attention because, although according to his speech last Autumn the economy was heading for the sunlit uplands as a result of his "long term economic plan" he now tells us that there is a "dangerous cocktail" of new threats which are likely to impede our progress.  These "threats" are, of course, all from external sources (the slow down in China, slow growth in the Eurozone, the fall in the price of oil  - though I should have thought that last one would be to our  advantage) and nothing to do with him, his unnecessary policy of austerity, "expansionary contraction" and ludicrous aim of a permanent budget surplus.

For more details see Bill Keegan's article in today's Observer.

By a combination of luck and clever presentation the Tories over the decades have managed to convince the electorate that they are economically competent.  The notion is risible.

Wednesday 6 January 2016

More honest politics - by accident rather than design.

David Cameron has decided (been forced to) permit his cabinet colleagues to campaign against his government's stance on membership of the EU, and Jeremy Corbyn has failed to sack ( been prevented from sacking) Hilary Benn for openly opposing him on the issue of bombing Syria.  So that means more of our leading politicians are going to say what they believe rather than what they've been told to say.

One of the earliest mistakes Nick Clegg made when we joined the Conservatives in coalition in 2010 was to announce that we Liberal Democrats must "own" all the coalition did: we could not "pick and choose."  As far as I can remember those were his exact words.

At the time I thought it was foolish.  It meant that our parliamentary party was forced to support and therefore be complicit in  policies which went very much against the party's traditions and beliefs.  The highly illiberal and counter-productive (and, as it has turned out, failed) economic policy of "expansionary contraction" is one example -  totally against the teachings of the Liberal Keynes, and the experience  and evidence of the post-war years.  The denigration  and punishment of those dependent on social security, and especially the disabled, is another - totally against the compassion and positive action of the Liberal Beveridge, again so successful in the post-war years.

It is surely unnecessary to apply the same conventions (an that's all they are - not laws) to coalitions as to those previously thought appropriate to single party government,  and the concept of collective responsibility - that all members of the government must support everything the government does, is one of them.

 In forming a coalition it should be possible, in the negotiations, for the parties to differentiate;

  • those issues on which we all agree and on which we shall campaign and vote together;
  • those on which the minor party (or parties)  have alternative views, but on which it is agreed that the view of the major party must prevail, and so the minor party will offer "confidence and supply" (ie not bring down the government);
  • those issue on which the minor party (or parties) reserve the right to campaign and vote independently.  
Yesterday's announcements acknowledge that even within our two major parties there are profound disagreements: within the Tories on Europe, within Labour on defence and, in particular, Trident.  We've all known that  for decades.  Hearing politicians who are known not to believe the party line solemnly intoning it and keeping rigidly "on message" is one of the reasons why so many of the electorate are disillusioned and switch off.

So now that "toeing the party line, or else" has been discarded by both the major parties, maybe this heralds an era of more genuine debate which is the essence of democracy,  defined by some  as "government by discussion."