Friday 29 December 2017

Why not "Be the Best"?

Another  piece of "silly season" news (see previous post) which has occupied the media over the holiday period is that the British Army has decided to drop the use of the recruiting slogan  "Be the Best" because Market research shows it to be " dated, elitist and non-inclusive."

Apparently this piece of market research cost around £500 000.

I cannot see why the slogan should  be regarded as either elitist or non-inclusive.  It is after all an aspiration rather than a claim that the army only "takes the best."  Surely, whatever our funciton, we should all be urged to at least try to "be the best" rather than be content with  mediocrity.

It is true, however that the phrase is dated, though in my view none the worse for that.

In my younger days I was a Boy Scout and then a Scout Leader.  There was, and, I'm happy to discover still is, a Scout Hymn,the first verse of which reads:
Now as I start upon my chosen way,
In all I do, my thoughts, my work, my play,
Grant as I promise, Courage new for me
To be the best, the best that I can be.
The hymn (which, incidentally doesn't mention any deity or any particular religion, as Scouting is an international movement regardless of "country, class or creed," as we used to put it) and the music to sing it to, was written  by Ralph Reader, who also wrote "Ging Gang Goo!" and choreographed the British Legion's annual Festival of Remembrance in the Albert hall for many years.

There are various versions of it on You-tube: my favourite is this, I suspect from the Philippines.

The hmm is sexist, in that it contains the wish to to "earn a place among my fellow men "but that doesn't seem to worry several  girls (some of them wearing head-scarves) who contribute to this version. In fairness to Reader, Scouting was for boys only in his day.

Getting back to the Army, I think the Army Education system for young people does a magnificent job. The Army Foundation College based in Harrogate takes in many dysfunctional young people (as well as many normally functioning ones from conventional backgrounds) who have often been brought up in care and failed to flourish in the ordinary school system, and enables them to become competent in academic as well as military skills.  Whether  it is right that they should take recruits  as young as 16 is another matter, but they certainly do an effective job in encouraging their charges to "be the best." Hats off to them.

Unfortunately the Army is not so good at looking after its personnel once their service is finished. A disproportionate number become rough sleepers, end up in prison, or have problems with their mental health.  They too deserve "the best" or at least something better than at present.

Tuesday 26 December 2017

Christmas news nadir

Traditionally our silly season for news is August, when nothing much newsworthy is thought to be happening and so the pages and news channels are filled with all sorts of nonsense.  Maybe even "fake" news.

One lead story this Christmas has given August a close run for its title..

The announcement that, once we have left the EU our former blue British passport will be restored to its former glory was hailed by the Brexiteers as a stupendous achievement.

However, the small print indicates the move to be petty and pointless.

Our new passport will not have the hard covers of the pre-EU one, will be the same size as the current burgundy red one, have the same floppy covers, and contain the same gadgetry which enables it to be "read" by the machines used almost universally by immigration officials. And, shock horror, it may may  be in a different shade of blue.

To cap it all there never was any EU regulation that insisted we have a burgundy red cover: we could have had any colour we liked.

True progress would be to move towards such a level of international harmony and confidence that passports could be abolished completely, and, in the words of Labour's great post-war Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, we could  ". . .buy a ticket at Victoria station and go where the bloody hell [we] liked" 

Members of the Schengen Agreement have made significant steps towards this, but Britain has been too timid to join.

This "achievement" by the Brexiteers is a petty and insignificant symbolic move in the wrong direction. In practice it will [probably lead to holders of the new document being placed in an even slower lane at passport control stations.

Weekly we are driven to wonder if our politics can get any more childish.

Thursday 14 December 2017

Tidings of (modified) joy.

Well, maybe things are just taking a turn or the better.  The defeat of the Republican candidate  in the election for a senator for Alabama  shows that the US electorate might, just might, be beginning to see the light about the awfulness of President Trump's attitudes and policies.

Here in the UK the House of Commons has  defeated the May Government's arrogant attempt to force through whatever Brexit deal they achieve without any serious possibility of parliament's having any meaningful say. How the new situation will work out in practice is yet to be seen but the significance is that, at last, MPs are  beginning to flex their  muscles and make that point that "taking back control" means taking it back to parliament and not to an over-mighty executive.

The muscle-flexing is so far fairly timid, It has depended on the "left of centre" opposition - Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats and the one Green being pretty united, with a handful of Tory MPs abstaining and only 11 having the guts to vote against the government.  However, this could be the turn of the tide - the event by which, after 18 months of timidity, MPs begin to think for themselves and do what they know to be right rather than slavishly obey their whips.

It really is astonishing that so few Conservative MPs, which their ostentatious posturing over the wonders of British institutions, traditions and values, are prepared to put the long-term interests of the country before short-term party advantage.  With our history of parliaments gradually wresting power from a mighty executive, (we even fought a civil war on it) how can they be so supine as to be willing to hand it back again?

I wonder how the events of the last two years or so would have played with our press and public opinion if a left-wing party in power had been hijacked by a handful of extremists and:

  • called a referendum on an issue which was dear to their own  ideology but not high on the priorities of most of the electorate;
  • failed to take any precautions to ensure a fair and honest debate;
  • declared a narrow result in their favour to be sacrosanct, in spite of the facts that the referendum was advisory only, many of the key facts on which they had argued were phoney and there were suspicions of illicit finance along with foreign interference in support of their case;
  • tried desperately to avoid parliament having any say in the implementation of the result;
  • fought the issue in court when objectors tried to invoke the "sovereignty of parliament;"
  • abused  the judges as "enemies of the people" when the courts decided against them;
  • took advantage of a supine opposition, terrified of press, to force the decision though parliament;
  • ploughed on regardless of the fact that  almost all informed opinion regarded their policy as hugely damaging to the future status of the country and welfare of its people:
  • used every device in their power, including blackening any opponents in their own party as well as in he opposition, as traitors and mutineers.
  • continued to make every attempt to avoid giving  parliament any meaningful say in the outcome of their policy.
There would be hell to play.

For example, way back in 1968, when Lord King, a press baron, decided that the country was dangerously "out of control" under Harold Wilson's Labour government, he called a secret meeting to plan to overthrow him and it and appoint Lord Mountbatten as the necessary "strong man."  The plan flopped when Mountbatten, who was present at the meeting, walked away as  he realised that what was being proposed amounted to treason.

What a difference a supine press makes

Saturday 9 December 2017

At last, cheer for the Brexiteers

In the eighteen months since the Referendum virtually all the EU/Brexit news has been bad..  I haven't kept a list, but, off the cuff:
  • citizens from other countries are increasingly abused and vilified on Britain's streets;
  • a 15% or so depreciation in the value of the £ is  feeding inflation, but not, so far, stimulating exports;
  • the promise of  £350m a week for the NHS turns out to be hollow, and those who made it say it was never meant to be taken seriously anyway.;
  • industrial and commercial investment has  stalled;
  • we have slipped from being  the fastest growing economy in the G7 to one of the slowest;
  • a hidden (ie never mentioned in the Referendum campaign) decision to leave EURATOM, wiull hamper supplies of  vital radioactive isotopes for, among others,  the NHS;
  • free trade deals with other countries are  not, after all, two a penny, and those available will  probably be on foreigners' terms (eg hormone-packed beef and chlorine-washed chicken from the US);
  •  banks  are planning or threatening to relocate in continental centres: Frankfurt and Dublin often cited as likely bases  for future financial hubs;
  • EU institutions are moving out of London - the European Banking Authority to Paris and the European Medicines Agency to Amsterdam;
  • the government has not after all conducted  a detail examination of the likely effects of Brexit on various sectors of the economy, and our cabinet has not yet discussed what it eventually wants to achieve.
In spite of the almost daily dose of "fresh disasters"* provoked by Brexit the Brexiteers keep their peckers up and continue to promise sunlit uplands for the "global Britain" once the EU shackles are removed.

Now at last they have something to cheer.  Mrs May, after a midnight flight to Brussels (which evokes memories of Chamberlain's flight to Germany  and return with his bit of papers promising "peace in our time") has secured agreement to move  on to the next stage of the negotiations.

In spite of the fact that this agreement has been achieved some two months later than was originally anticipated, she is for the moment the heroine of the hour.

However, we are accustomed to seeing, for example, budgets hailed on the day as works of genius by the incumbent chancellor, and unravelled a few days later after examination of the small print,

I suspect something similar will happen to this agreement.

  • the divorce bill has rocketed from an initial "they can whistle" (Foreign Secretary Johnson) to €/£20bn and then almost doubled to around  €/£40bn;
  • the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the rest of the EU will continue to be  subject to the jurisdiction of the European Count of Justice (ECJ) for a least eight years, though  we shall no longer have any  representation on the ECJ;
  • ro avoid a "hard border" in Ireland  regulations in Northern Ireland (and by implication, the rest of the UK) will be "aligned" to those of the to the EU..  
Such is the chutzpah of the Brexiteers that former Tory Leader Ian Duncan Smith claims that the EU have "blinked first."  For one I agree with Nigel Farage that, in order to reach some sort of agreement, Mrs May has caved in on all counts.

I want to make it clear that the above anomalies are from the point of view of the Brexiteers, not me.  If we must leave the EU I believe that our international reputation demands that we pay our full dues (eg for pensions and expenditure committed whilst we were member), with the amount determined by an independent arbiter.  I am very happy to be subject to the decisions of the ECJ, as we are subject to the decisions of umpteen other international tribunals, and it is my firm belief that  our regulations should not just be "aligned" to the EU, but we should remain as full and co-operative members of the Customs Union and Single Market, indeed of the EU itself, thus helping to make the regulations as well as obeying them.

Apart from  the economic and social impacts of the Brexit obsession, I have two major worries.

First the four opening headlines on the BBC news a few days ago were:

  • The Vice Chancellor of Bath Spa University was to be given a pay-off of £800millions (By contrast Job Seekers receive £71.10 a week.   Asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work, must subsist on £36.95 a week, of which, says our Home Office, £24.39 is for food and £2.60 a week is designated for clothing)
  • a government minister said that former ISIS fighters should not be allowed back into Britain but hounded to their deaths (no trial was mentioned and the rule of law ignored):
  • the number waiting over the maximum of 4 hours for treatment in hospital Accident and Emergency Departments has increased  by 120%.  If that were measured in dozens that would be bad enough, but I believe the total is over 3 million:
  • The Queen launched the world's most expensive warship, an aircraft carrier, and named it after herself, but it will be some years before we can afford to equip it with the necessary aircraft.
In other words, idiocies like this are happening on a daily basis, but they are pushed to the sidelines rather than dealt with, because the government puts all its energy into Brexit.

Second, although most concern is devoted to the economic damage that Brexit will cause, whatever it is we shall still be a wealthy nation and , if we have the political  wilt to share our wealth equitably we can all live comfortable lives. No one need suffer economic hardship.. 

However,already our political influence is diminishing and will diminish even further outside the EU.

Which all our faults and limitations the UK has  in the past made a positive contribution to the creation of a  fairer and more liberal world, helping to create and promote the international rule of law.  We are no longer the Great Power I was  taught to think we were when Churchill sat with Truman and Roosevelt in my childhood.  But inside the EU we are still among the "big hitters".  Outside  we shall sink to the third or fourth division.

At a time when the major power promoting and defending liberal democracy, the US, is in questionable hands, the world is surely looking for alternative leadership. This is  no time to opt out.

Thursday 30 November 2017

UK's deaf ears to the Irish Border problem

As a former teacher I'm quite accustomed to people not listening.  That's why I always regarded the golden rule of successful teaching to be:

  • tell them what you're going to tell them;
  •  tell them
  •  tell them what you've told them.
Of course, this approach wouldn't wash with OFSTED and its aims "tailored for every individual child"  but I found it pretty effective with my students..

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to work with British politicians, or the British media.

From the beginning the European Commission has been perfectly and repeatedly clear that progress on trade deals etc could not proceed until satisfactory arrangement had been made on the three basics of the UK's "divorce" settlement, the status of EU nationals already in the UK, and the Irish border.

It has always been obvious that the divorce settlement would be easiest to settle because it is the easiest to fudge.  Now that fudge has been reached.  Boris Johnson's lofty assertion that [the EU] could "whistle for their money" was clearly directed at his potential supporters -  "Boris will tell 'em!" - rather than a serious contribution.  An initial offer of around £20bn was  hinted at and the EU was said to be thinking of anything up to €100bn.

Now the compromise of around £/€50bn appears to be on the table but, since no specific final amount is mentioned, and the payment could be in instalments over several years, or even decades, after the initial indignation the whole thing will be pushed into the long grass as we obsess on other things (possibly more royal babies.)

A civilised reciprocal arrangement for EU citizens already in the UK and UK citizens remaining in the EU should not be beyond the will of skilful diplomats.  "All the rights you already have," announced on the day after the referendum, would and should have been a healthy start. If our government were capable of shame they would experience it in the cruel folly of making people's lives a bargaining chip

But there really is no credible solution to the problem of the Irish border.  The Brexiteers fantasise about some technology so modern that it does not yet exist  which will allow free passage of goods and services from Northern Ireland, in the UK and outside the EU, to the Republic of Ireland, in the EU and outside the UK, without the UK's being in the Customs Union or even the Single Market

This obviously can't be done.  the Irish Government and the EU's negotiators,have said so from the beginning.  The Brexiteers, and their supine media supporters, have simply not listened, and now cry "foul" as the December deadline for the next stage of the talks approaches.

This earlier post illustrates how tragic it will be if this wilful blindness upsets the fragile peace based on the Good Friday Agreement and results in a resumption of the "Troubles" which have caused so much misery for  ordinary people for the past century and more.

Friday 24 November 2017

Timid touches of the tiller in Hammond's budget.

The most eye-catching announcement in the Conservative budget - the standard "rabbit out of the hat" designed to catch the headlines - is the exemption from stamp duty for first-time buyers of houses up to the value of £300 000.  Happily this is by no means as generous as it looks, as house purchases up to the value of £125 000 are already exempt.

 Given that the average value of the first time buy is £165 000 this means that the lucky purchaser will save a princely 2% of £40 000, or £800: better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, as the Australians say, but hardly the kick in the backside  needed to to stimulate our dysfunctional housing supply

Buyers in London, where house prices are higher, will gain the benefit of the exemption up to £300 000 for purchases up to half a million, which can amount to £5 000 for those with monster salaries or a generous and helpful "bank of mum and dad."

So, be it £800 or £5 000, this either a nice little extra or a generous bung for the "haves" in society: a typical feature  of a Tory budget. 

Similarly the rises in the thresholds for the payment of income tax  benefit the "haves"  already paying the standard rate (an extra £70 a year, 20% of the tax exempt increase of £350) and ££340 a year for those on the £40%rate.  By contrast those receiving Universal Credit  gain a net ££25.90 a year, or about 50p a week.  More Tory "unto him that hath shall be given"

More promising is the tacit abandonment of the desperate attempt to put the economy to rights by the fancifully named "expansionary fiscal contraction "  - analogous in medical terms  to bleeding the patient until he or she either expires  or gives a desperate jerk back to life.  This budget is mildly, very mildly, Keynesian, with extra government borrowing of £2.7bn next year  for infrastructure development (some of it in the North!), and ££9.2bn (wow!) for  for 2019-20.

How much past and future misery could have been avoided if this light had flashed into the blinkered neoliberal eyes from 2010 onwards.

Because the truth of the budget is in the forecasts: that the miracle promised from 2010 onwards has failed, , and all those boasts about the "long term economic plan" are empty air.

The economy has stalled and with no substantial change of direction (and government?) we shall be limping along for another decade or so before we get back to where we were before the 2007/8 crash., Until then the poorest and weakest in our society must continue to bear the burden, with those on Job Seekers' Allowance, poor things, continuing to tote their CVs,  on an unimproved  £73 30 a week ( £57.90 if under 25) and new  recipients of Universal Credit mildly comforted by having to live without incomes for only five waiting weeks rather than six..

Figures quoted in this post can be found here

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Budget obsession

The annual obsession of Britain's political and chattering classes with the government's budget is both  unhealthy and unrealistic.

Unhealthy because it is simply not true, for the vast majority of us, that a little bit more or a little bit less income or spending power is going to make much difference to the quality of our lives and our happiness.  Yet on Thursday (the budget is tomorrow, Wednesday) the papers will be full of charts and columns showing how the budget will affect the incomes  and spending of various groups: single people; single mothers with one, two or three children;  happy families with a mother, father and 2.4 children; pensioner couples, and single pensioners.

For all of these groups a decision to take a twenty-minute walk every day, to eat less junk food, and to smile more often at our neighbours, would make far more difference to the quality of our lives than any decision the chancellor of the exchequer can make.

That is not to say that those on and below the margin, some twenty percent of our population, will not be affected by minor changes in their incomes, but these can be made, and often are, at any time on the year. .A decision to cut the "waiting time" for universal credit from six to four weeks has already been made, and it should now  be reduced by anther two,  There's bags of opportunity to force builders hoarding land with planing permission (a problem that  has existed for decades, but which the government has apparently only just recognised) to build on it or lose it.

There is no need to parcel all the possible improvements into one piece of political theatre.

Unrealistic because  there is the expectation  that the budget, for good or ill, will turn round the fortunes of the government.  Uniquely I think, some members of the governing party are hoping that the budget will be a flop as  this will enable them to get rid of the chancellor becasue he is insufficiently enthusiastic about Brexit.  But how many. other than anoraks (and not all of those)  now remember the details of last year's budget, or even George Osborne's omishambles?

More seriously, it is unrealistic that one collection  of economic tweaks  is going to transform the ailing British economy. As Larry Elliott pointed out here; 

"even before the referendum Britain was running a record current account deficit, growth was being pumped up by an overheating housing market, factories were still producing  less than before the start of the financial crisis, and people in the poorest parts of the country were being targeted  with deep cuts in welfare benefits."

Since the referendum matters have worsened. The pound has depreciated by some 15%, fuelling inflation; investment  has been held back because of the uncertainty caused be Brexit, and influential firms and organisations are either planning or actually moving to other countries. Yesterday, for example, it was announced that Goldman Sachs would make Paris and Frankfurt their post-Brexit" hubs,"  and two EU institutions will, not unexpectedly, move out of London:  the Banking Authority also to Paris and the Medicines Agency to Amsterdam.

There used to be a "joke" that it took three  miles (or was it three leagues?) to turn round the RMS Queen Mary.  Something similar can be said of the British economy: it well take not one but a decade or more   of the constructive budgets to put matters right..  There is no shortage of such constitutive ideas.  My own humble Keynesian contribution was published as early as 2011 and can be seen here.It all remains highly relevant, though I would now add, of course , that we abandon Brexit.

If Mr Hammond sticks to his guns tomorrow's budget may make a start, but I suspect it will be modest.

Saturday 18 November 2017

Albion still perfidious.

I think most of we British are at least vaguely aware, possibly from the Lawrence of Arabia film, or reading his book, that our government let down, or even double-crossed, the Arabs, after the First World War.

As I understand it, and I'm no expert, Britain  promised, or at least indicated to, the Arab peoples, that if they revolted against the Ottoman Empire which had for centuries ruled much of the Middle East and was our enemy in the First World War, then, when the Allied victory was achieved, their lands would be handed over (or back?) to the Arabs as their own country.  This is what Lawrence of Arabia is said to have believed and promised the Arabs if they gave their support to the British forces.

Instead, the British and French parcelled up the area between them in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and, on top of that, apportioned a chunk as an international home for the Jews,without so much as a with your leave or a by your leave of the people who lived there,  in the Balfour Declaration..

Less well known (or at least it was new to me) was a betrayal of Chinese expectations which was exposed in a documentary, Britain's Forgotten Army, shown on Channel 4 last week and still available to watch again here.

Some 140 000 Chinese were recruited and acted as labourers for the Allies on the Western Front and elsewhere during the First World War.  Many were killed, and it is acknowledge that, without their help, it would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, to supply the troops.  In the event of Allied victory the Chinese government anticipated that the German concessions on the Chinese mainland would be handed back to them.  This expectation (promise?) was ignored at the Versailles Peace Conference, and the concessions were handed over to China's traditional enemy, Japan.

"New" Labour's shadow foreign secretary in the 1990s, Robin Cook, aware of this history of duplicity, outlined the "ethical foreign policy"Labour would adopt if returned to power.  He had the honesty  to resign when Tony Blair's government supported the Americans in the invasion of Iraq.  Sadly this exemplar of political  immediate integrity died shortly afterwards.  Cook's successor, Jack Straw, quickly reverted to type and it is hard to see your foreign policy becoming more ethical under the present foreign secretary, the vacillating and opportunist Boris Johnson.

Saturday 11 November 2017

Remembrance Day

Here's a telling sentence from Giles Fraser's article in yesterday's Guardian:

"...I am always conscious that remembrance is too easily purloined by those who want to celebrate precisely the sort of militarism  and nationalistic chauvinism that led so many young men  to pointless deaths."

That certainly resonates with me, and for some years, in order to try and balance the motives behind Poppy Day I've worn a white poppy* alongside the red one..

In his article Fraser quotes this poem by  Ellis Humphrey Evans, who was killed on the first day of Passchendaele:

Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?

Man raised his sword, once God had gone,
To slay his brother, and the roar
Of battlefields now casts upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.

The harps to which we sang are hung,
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain

I believe the poem was originally written in Welsh.

I shall try to publish this post as near as possible to 11am today, and reflect on  the poem in my Two Minutes' silence.

* These can be obtained from the Peace Pledge Union.  It's probably too late to buy one for this year but you cn read about them here.

Friday 10 November 2017

UK unempoyment: a record low?

It's natural that those who want to boost our image as "global Britain" make much of any positive information about the performance of our economy.  Eighteen months or so ago much was made of the statistic that we were " the fastest growing economy in the G7."  Now, since the referendum result, we've slipped to the slowest among the G7, we no longer hear  much about that.

However, last week there was "good" news: our current level of unemployment, at 4.3% is the lowest since the days of Harold Wilson, and now among the lowest of the major economies of Europe - less half that of that of France, for example.

Those of us in the  economics education business learned to distrust government unemployment statistics way back in the 80s. That 4.3% is based on what is known as the "claimant count"  - the number of people "signing on" for unemployment benefit.  Mrs Thatcher's government made over 30 adjustments to the way the claimant count was calculated, almost all of them leading to a lower total.  Basically, if there is no entitlement to a benefit, many those who are unemployed don't bother to "sign on" at the Labour  Exchanges created by Winston Churchill when he was a member of  the Liberal government in the noughties of the last century and now called Job Centres, as these places are no longer  all that helpful in finding people jobs.

Rather, economists now focus on the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) broader measure of unemployment.  Independent research  by Sheffield   Hallam University, summarised here, claims that  that 735 000 people would need to be added to the claimant count to match the ILO measure.That's almost as many as the 785 000 on the claimant count, so  just about doubles the percentage figure to bring it roughly equal to that of France.

But that's not the end of the story.  There's another 750 000 people who have been shunted  off on to Incapacity Benefits who would really like a job but can't get one.  Many still look vigorously, but many have given up hope, I suspect because, once employers see a gap in someone's employment history they are reluctant to offer a job if there are other candidates with a continuous employment records.  Most people these days these days are careful to  disguise any gaps in their CVs.

The Sheffield Hallam researchers refer to this factor  as "hidden unemployment."  Whether in this they also include  the vast number, particularly women, who are in part-time jobs but who would really like full-time jobs, those on short-term contracts who would like longer-term security, those with routine jobs which make no demands on their qualification and capabilities, and those at the bottom of the pile on "zero-hours" contracts, I don't know.

What I do know is that the state of the jobs market is a far cry from the healthy days of my early teaching career, when we regarded 3% as the normally tolerable rate of unemployment.  Even today's claimant count is nearly 50% higher than this.

Saturday 4 November 2017

Exiting Brexit: how democratic is that?

Handing out pro-EU leaflets in Brgigate, Leeds's main street, on Saturdays is an interesting experience.

Most people walk past and ignore us.  A surprising number come quietly to our little stall without being asked and sign our petition to put a stop to Brexit, and only a very few come actually to talk about the pros and cons of leaving or staying in the EU.

Every half hour or so we will be abused by an angry pro-Brexit enthusiast.

"It's democracy," they'll shout." It's decided.  We're leaving . Good riddance.. . " etc"

 They rarely want to talk about it, to listen, yet alone discuss, any of the arguments about the damage being done to the nation's status, their own wellbeing or  future prospects. The few who do simply harangue us.

"We've voted, that's it."

I'm not surprised.  These are the people who, under our "first past the post" electoral system have rarely cast a vote which counts for anything or decided anything.  Only those living in a tiny handful of marginal constituencies have that privilege.

But this vote, the referendum, was a chance to have a crack at the establishment which they feel has complacently ignored their needs.  For years they have been drip-fed  bile from the biassed press,(largely  owned by tax-avoiding foreigners) that their perceived ills -  wages undercut, traditional (white?) culture threatened, unaffordable houses, prising rices, crumbling transport system and health service  - are largely if not all the fault of the EU.

Over 40 years no leading politician since Ted Heath : not Wilson,  not Thatcher, not Major, not Blair, not Brown, not Campbell, has had the guts to put the positive case of the benefits to us of EU membership.  Indeed the reverse:  the EU's alleged regulations, red tape and bureaucracy have provided both major parties with a convenient scape-goat for any unpopular policy which may be for our long-run good

However, what did surprise me was this statement, aired by John Redwood on the BBC Radio 4 "Any Questions" programme.  (It comes about  ten minutes from the end)

In a debate on the so-called "meaningful vote" which Parliament is to have on the result of the negotiations Redwood says:

 "Parliament can vote what it likes.  We are leaving the EU in March 2019 [said twice] whatever Parliament thinks  about it."

Now Mr Redwood is no neglected left-behind from a deprived region but the Rt Hon John, MP for Wokingham since 1987 (that's 30 years), one-time Minister of State in the(Department of Trade and Industry), Minister in the Department of the Environment), and Secretary of State for Wales.

Not the most outstanding political career, perhaps, but pretty glittering all the same, and certainly not lacking in influence.

This, from a distinguished and informed politician who campaigned for "taking back control" and the "supremacy of the UK Parliament) is disgraceful.

Democracy is government by discussion.  There is no reason for the discussion to stop after a narrow victory in one flawed advisory referendum campaign supported by an overwhelmingly biassed press and, possibly , we now hear, dodgy money.

Public opinion has probably already reversed the narrow "Leave" victory.

Sadly so far that;s insufficient to stiffen the sinews of our supine legislators.

But a further shift to, say, 60:40, is surely well on the cards as the false prospectus promised by the Leave campaign unravels day by day

Brexit is by no means a "done deal" and the weakness of the Brexit case is revealed in their present  reliance  on the assumption that it is.

Monday 30 October 2017

Cautious about confidence

Tonight BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a programme ( (The Confined Trick, 8pm) advising us  how to boost our confidence.  I expect lots of aspirating go-getters will be listening-in and avidly taking notes.  But I hope the programme will also consider the downsides of confidence.

A first rate depiction of confidence is given in the  TV documentary “Army: Behind the New Frontlines” currently showing on BBC2.  From colonels though junior officers and NCOs to the newest recruits everyone seems and sounds supremely confident  of the justification for their presence in various parts of the world ( Ukraine in last week's episode), what they are about to do, and the  probability of success.  

 Actual military history tells a different story, from the unimaginable slaughter of the First World War to the pointless wastage of Vietnam and the counter-productive engagement in Iraq. 

Even the Second World War, which, from the British point of view is seen as justified and successful, even part of the glorious past,  was not, however,  quite the efficient operation some  like to think.  As Jo Grimond, a junior officer in it, points out in his Memoirs, (p99):

". . .once America joined in the war, let alone Russia*, we were bound to win .  If anything is remarkable, it is  remarkable that [victory] took so long."

Grimond goes on to point out the damage  our view of our exceptional national gifts which resulted from   our victory  did to our national psyche:

"Yet we came out of the war being told that 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."

I strongly suspect that the residue of this attitude is what fuels the enthusiasm of the leading Brexiteers. Perhaps the  acronym SNAFU, coined. in the Second World War, aptly describes the situation towards which they wolud take us.

 Let's  hope the BBC, always concerned for balance, will run a series on the virtues of honest doubt. 

* We should never forget that, whereas the number of deaths does not necessarily correlate with the contribution to victory, according to the Soviet Union suffered between 20 000 000 and 27 000 000 civilian and military deaths, compared with  the UK's
 450 900 and the US's 419 000.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Disunited Nations

Today, 24th October, is United Nations Day, though I haven't heard a whiff of information about it on the BBC news, or seen any mention in the papers.  However, there is no shortage of news about disunited squabbling (Mrs May v the EU and the rest of the world; Donald Trump v North Korea; to mention just two)

I suppose it is no surprise that the British press, and not only the Red Tops, should choose to demonise the negotiators on behalf of the EU and make desperate attempts to turn the fumbling efforts of the Brexiteers  into heroic shots from David's sling against an over-mighty Goliath.  And if we don't get our own way  we'll walk away.  So meuh!

I haven't yet heard a single concrete example of how Britain's economic prospects, political influence or prestige will be improved by leaning the EU: instead  a veritable Tsunami of predictions of woe if we are daft enough to go through with it and leave.  Much of this, agreed, is speculation, but there are also concrete facts, such as the plans of banks to move to Frankfurt or Dublin, postponements of investment by manufacturers, and a humiliating depreciation of the £.

Even more worrying is way the US/North Korea dispute is being conducted via childish Tweets which could make  the average  playground dispute look mature. The US foreign service must be tearing their hair.

The United Nations Organisation was set up to provide a mature and sophisticated  method of solving international disputes and promoting international co-operation.  It is worth remembering that the UK was instrumental in setting it up and is one of only five "super members" with a permanent seat, and veto, on the Security Council.  Today our Brexiteers are desperately negotiating to move us down  into the fourth division.

True the UN needs reform to reflect contemporary circumstances (the importance of India and Brazil, for example) rather than the perceived international league table of 1945.  The UK should be playing a constructive role in this.  Instead we are preoccupied with a childish skirmish in another arena, as well as neglecting the very real domestic problems which are daily taking us further down the international tables..

Some nostalgic buffoons suggest we should have another public holiday and that it should  be Trafalgar Day, 21st October.  (There was a march in London for those obsessed with our "glorious past" rather than our problematic present.).  I'm all in favour of an extra public holiday and suggest yet again that it should be United Nations Day, to encourage us to concentrate on the realities of trying to achieve  a constructive present rather than wallowing in delusions of past grandeur.

PS  Today is also World Polio Day. I'm not familiar with he details but I suspect that the discovery and distribution of the anti Polio Salk Vaccine owes more to public and charitable enterprise than the so-called  "free" market.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Destitution: Britain's shame

Poverty is easy to describe - not having  enough resources to live a decent lifestyle - but difficult to be precise about.

In Britain today Winstanley's " poorest he*" has access to clean water, adequate sanitation, free schooling for his children and a first-rate health service - services that most of even  the comfortably-off in the Third World would give their eye teeth for. 

Clearly poverty is relative to the "norm"  in the society in which you live.  In Britain we define the acceptable minimum as having a household income of at least two thirds of the median.

The nature of the  "acceptable minimum" changes over time.  Today it probably incudes some sort of mobile phone for each child over 11, whereas in my youth it was perfectly acceptable, actually normal , for the household to have no kind of phone at all  -  nor fridge, nor washing machine nor, for many of us,  bathroom and indoor lavatory.  Maybe some children try to bully their parents into believing that "acceptable" today incudes broadband access, designer clothes and a foreign holiday.

Last week the Guardian's tabloid section gave a run-down on the current status of the "Five Giants" that tthe famous (and Liberal) Beveridge Report of precisely 75 years ago  set out to conquer.  Prominent on Beveridge's list was poverty, which he called "Want" (with a capital "W")

Today's figures are disturbing, to say the least.  Seventy-five years after the conquest was announced, and in what some proudly boast of as "the fifth largest economy in the world" four million of our children, some 15%, are now living in poverty as defined above.  This figure is predicted to rise to more than 18% by 2020/21 as a result of the government's current policies

If we are tempted to shrug our shoulders and say that's all relative, then the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has coined an new category - destitution.  The definition is frightening, and incudes anyone  who has faced two or more of the following in one month:

  • been sleeping rough;
  • had only one or no meals for two days or more;
  • been unable to light  or heat  their home  for five or more days;
  • been without weather-appropriate clothing or basic toiletries.
Across 2015 over one and a quarter million people, or 2% of our population experienced destitution as so define.  The figure included 312 000 children.

In an economy in which the GDP per capita (shared equally between each man, woman and child) is $42,500 (2016 est.) which, even at the present miserable exchange rate amounts to over £32 000 a head, it is difficult to find a word strong enough to express our shame.

* as defined in the 17th Century, but would now include the more numerous "she'"

Thursday 12 October 2017

Labour and the Single Market: facing both ways.

My MP  Tracy Brabin (Labour) states in her election literature (I kept a copy) that she would "fight for . . .full  access  to the single market."  (I quote her exactly).

Consequently, when she failed to vote vote for  Chuka Umunna's single market amendment to the Queen's Speech to achieve just that, and failed to sign an open letter from 40+ Labour stalwarts also demanding the policy she said she would fight for, I asked why?

 I now have a response, (addressed to "Dear Peter," though I've never met her.)

As our trading relationship with the EU changes it is vital that we retain unrestricted access for our goods and services. However remaining in the single market and the customs union once we have left the European union would not be advantageous for us.

This is "double-think" worthy of Orwell's 1984.

Most traders will have access to the single market, but we shall only  retain "unrestricted " access if we  remain a member of it.

Yesterday on the BBC's "Today" programme a manufacturer argued that the EU's  Common External Tariff (CET) would not be  a significant barrier  because the 15% depreciation of the £ as a result of the Referendum more than compensated for it. (So much for the scorn that the Tories used to heap on Labour as "the party of devaluation.")  

But in international trade today tariffs are relatively minor impediment compared with non-tariff  barriers (NTBs) that is that goods and services must comply with certain standards regarding origin,  contents, labelling (remember the fuss about weighing things  in grammes and kgs  rather than lbs and ozs?) safety , environmental impact etc. 

If Brexit is not stopped the Briexiteers will doubtless hail a trade deal with the US.  This will almost certainly  be on US terms and allow access to the UK market  for  items such as chlorine washed chicken and   beef products raised with excessive use of hormones.  These are the ones there's been publicity  about: there will be many more that Europeans. find unacceptable.

The EU is not going to allow "unrestricted " access to these products.

Labour's current stance is therefore  completely illusory, and no different from the the Government's "have your cake and eat it" delusion .

It is shameful that, with a government living in a "land of let's pretend" the official Opposition occupies identical ground.  Their duty is to propose a viable alternative.  

There are Labour MPs who recognise thisAnd there's a Labour Campaign for the Single Market.  All power to their elbows, and I urge Mrs Brabin to stand by her election promise and join them.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Tories clearing up the mess left by - the Tories.

The Conservatives have  achieved an amazing PR success with  their lie* that they have been engaged for   the past seven years in  "clearing up the mess left by Labour."  Now they are embarked on clearing up several other messes, but without acknowledging that is it they and their policies which caused the mess in the first place.

Take, for example, housing.  Mrs May has just realised that there is a national shortage of affordable housing and so has announced in her conference speech that the government will sanction an additional  £2b of expenditure to alleviate it.  It is not awfully clear from where the £2b is to come (central government subsidy, local authority borrowing?) but the intention is good, though the funding is probably inadequate.

There's no mention in the speech, however, as to why there is a shortage of such housing.  It originates in Margaret Thatcher's policy of "right to buy", introduced in 1980. This  forced (not allowed, but forced) local authorities to sell off their council houses to  tenants, who were tempted to buy by massive discounts.  The local authorities were not permitted to use the receipts to build replacement council houses, so the supply of affordable rented accommodation diminished.

The Tory aim was to create a "property owning democracy" which, Mrs Thatcher hoped, would convert more people into Tory voters.  Maybe some have obliged, but many of the discount- bought houses have been sold on and today some 40% of the former council houses are now owed by private buy-to let landlords, who, of course, charge "economic rents," so have acquired a "nice little earner."

Bizarrely the "right to buy" continues and has now been extended to housing association tenants.  Maybe the right will not apply to any new social housing built, but, so far,  joined up thinking this is not.

The second area now recognised as a "mess" is the energy companies who over-charge for gas and electricity. Again the problem is caused by Conservative doctrine which required the privatisation of the publicly owned and regionally organised suppliers (in my area they were  the Yorkshire Electricity Board, YEB, and the North Eastern Gas Board, NEGB.  They both ran separate and friendly showrooms where you could pay your bills, buy appliances, and, if you wanted, complain. ).

The gas suppliers were privatised in  1986 (those with funds enough to buy the shares in response to the "Tell Sid" campaign made a comfortable profit) and electricity suppliers  in 1990.  The idea was that the "discipline of the market" would lead to more efficient supplies, higher investment and lower prices.  Ed Miliband's policy in the 2015 that the prices were unreasonably high and should be capped was treated with scorn by the Tories, but now Mrs May has adopted the policy, naturally with no explanation or apology.

Although the "strong and stable " Tory campaign theme  of the 2017 election  did not have the effect they desired we are still repeatedly told  that we need a strong and determined government in " these very difficult times."  Well, of course the times are of unprecedented difficulty - because David Cameron recklessly tried to solve an internal party problem by calling a referendum on membership of the EU, failing to legislate for the necessary safeguards and being too complacent to campaign effectively for continued membership.

So there we are: "Another fine mess. . . " as Oliver Hardy used to say to Stan Laurel in the films of my childhood.

Just to illustrate what good government can be like  a friend whose sister takes the Daily Mail has passed to me a cutting that tells me:

  • The government of Norway set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund in the 1990s to invest the country's oil riches;
  • the fund is now worth more than $1tn;
  • that's about £140 000 per Norwegian;
  • the fund is invested all round the world and owns 1.4% of all global equities;
  • it does not invest in companies that produce tobacco, nuclear weapons or land mines.
Our oil bonanza was squandered in tax cuts and the need to fund an increase in unemployed  people  to above 3 million  in order to tame the working classes.

I'm not arguing that without the Tories life in the UK would be all sweetness and light - even a Liberal government would find that a tough call. But I am sure that history will show that the Tories have been responsible for much (or should that be many?) of the dire straights we find ourselves in today.

*  For readers not up to speed on this one, the "mess" was actually caused by the near collapse of the world's banking systems in the financial crisis of 2007/8. Incredibly, Conservative PR managed to place the blame on Labour overspending.  The Conservatives were, of course (and still are!) chief proponents of the deregulation which lead to the irresponsible lending by the banks which caused the crisis.  Sadly and inexplicably the Labour Party were very timid about defending their record. so history was, and to some extent still is, rewritten. 

**Post script (added  7th October). Just to show that this lie is "par for the course" rather than a blip, here is a  letter from a Neville Westerman in yesterday's Guardian.

" It is a matter of historical record that the Conservatives voted against universal health in 1948, as they voted against universal dole and universal pensions in 1909, and universal education in 1870.  I remember the vicious and dishonest hostility  against the NHS by the Troy party in 1948 , which was very similar to the present attitude of the US Republicans..  But Jeremy Hunt declared to conference that the Conservatives have always supported the NHS.   The success of the Tory party to gain power has largely been based on its eagerness to tell blatant lies.  Tory policy for 150 years has been largely inhumane, devoid of compassion  and opposed to the welfare state, but defended by lying, their "not so secret" weapon . . . ."

Sadly, the Tories' other "not so secret " weapon is a biassed press which gives credence, publicity and reinforcement  to their distortions (to put it more politely)

Monday 2 October 2017

Stop Brexit march - was it worth it?

Yesterday I attended a Pro-EU demonstration in Manchester to coincide with the first day of the Conservative  Party conference.  It was great fun.  There were some 30 000 of us (according to one of the meagre pieces of press reporting); lots of EU flags along with some Union Jacks; plenty of balloon, horns and whistles;  and loads of bonhomie and enthusiasm.

 It was an all-and-none-party affair with some fantastic speakers: a former Conservative who used to serve on the same council as Theresa May; Bonnie Greer, whose father celebrated his 21st birthday in Britain as a member of the US racially-segregated D-Day forces; and our own Vince Cable.

The most effective speech by far was by Alistair Campbell.  Among other things he pointed out that the Brexiteers implied that, the day after the Referendum (23rd June 2016) soar-away Britain would be out there fixing  global trade deals with an eager "rest of the world."  However, if you happened to have had sex on that day and conceived a child it would now be cutting its teeth, but trade dealing has yet to begin.

Your can see why Tony Blair chose him as Director of Communications.

After returning home I listened to several radio news bulletins and watched a couple of TV news programmes, but there were no mentions of our march.  There was a little bit about a trade union march against austerity, presumably more newsworthy because they had a minor clash with the police (who were out in considerable force.)  I doubt very much if many in the Tory conference even noticed us, and there didn't seem to be many Mancunians around.  There's just one paragraph about us in today's Guardian, which also gives more coverage to the austerity march and their clash than to us.

The most detailed account I've found is here

So was it worth it?  As a pro-EU compaigner I certainly feel emboldened and enthused.

I learnt a chant:

Whatever happened to "Strong and stable?"
Exit Brexit with Vince Cable.

Not really logical, but catchy.

But that seems a lot of effort for very little. Maybe there's lots of stuff on social media that I haven't yet learned to access.

Monday 25 September 2017

Getting "on yer bike" can be dangerous too

I write as an occasional cyclist who has been bounced off my bike by a careless pedestrian as I was coasting modestly downhill.  In this case nothing really serious resulted.  I hit the tarmac and suffered some nasty grazes (I was wearing shorts) but didn't break anything, and luckily there was no traffic immediately behind to run me over.  The pedestrian admitted she had stepped into the road without looking, apologised profusely, and presumably soon recovered from any bruises she'd received (she was well-upholstered.)

It is perhaps presumptuous to comment  on the case of Charlie Alliston without having actually witnessed the accident or heard the evidence at his trial, but I think a few  non-judgemental comments are in order.

In 2016 Alliston, riding in London, hit a pedestrian, Mrs Kim Briggs.who died as a result of the accident. I believe Mrs Briggs was talking on her  mobile phone at the time of the accident and had stepped into the road.   I've no idea whether Alliston was thrown off his bike or  injured in any way or not.

There is no doubt about the seriousness of the outcome but it does seem to me that the legal case on which Alliston was prosecuted is somewhat contrived.  Apparently the bicycle he was riding had no front brake and that is illegal.  I wonder how many people knew that?  I well remember the days when the only way to stop some bikes was to pedal backwards.  Then apparently there is no offence of "dangerous cycling" so someone unearthed the crime of "wanton and dangerous driving" which, as it is contained in an act of 1861 ,five years before even the Penny Farthing was invented, was presumably meant to apply to horses and carriages.

Alliston has been sentenced to 18 months in prison, (of which he will presumably served 9 months if he behaves himself)  This seems to me totally disproportionate.  Apart from the cost to the public (about £40 000 per head per year)  if he were barred from riding a bike Alliston would be no danger to the public, and if he were ordered to do some form of community service, that could do both him and the community some good.

Predictably the tabloids are crying out for new laws to punish reckless cyclists, and it is quite possible the government will oblige, (as the Major government did with their Dangerous Dogs Act, in 1991)  in order to distract us from the Brexit shambles, (or, in Major's case, from "the Bastards" of that ilk).

Cyclist organisations point out that the government has as yet done nothing on a promise made in 2014 to consider "a wider examination of road laws and their application" which would apply to all road users, including pedestrians.  They also point out that of the 400 or so pedestrians killed on Britain's roads each year fewer than half a per cent  are struck by cyclists.

Just to be even handed, on my few visits to London I have noted the appalling behaviour of many cyclists, and acknowledge that this is beginning to creep in here, out in the sticks.  I believe cyclists should obey the rules of the road, not jump traffic lights, show their own lights when it's dark, and have bells to warn of their approach (especially on bridle-ways, canal tow-paths and footpaths where I go walking.)

Friday 22 September 2017

Liberals have no defining philosophy? Woah!

A few days ago former Troy MP Matthew Parris wrote and article in The Times in which he argued that now there is a good opportunity for a Liberal Democrat revival because, whereas  both Conservatives and Labour are weighed down by ideological baggage, we Liberal Democrats, along with the bulk of the electorate, aren't. 

This provoked indignation from the faithful, best expressed by my friend Michael Meadowcroft, who wrote directly to Parris:

  Dear Matthew
There was much to take note of and to act on in your Times article last Saturday, “This is the moment for a Lib Dem revival”, but there was one sentence in the penultimate paragraph that astonished me, given your broad political experience and awareness:

And the defining defect of the Lib Dems? That they have no bold and simple ideology, no defining philosophy; that they’re stuck in the middle; neither one thing nor the other.

I am conscious that you then go on to suggest that this may well be an electoral advantage but the alternative is a more powerful case: that to develop a political party, and to recruit committed activists who have a determination to  go out and persuade others, one has to have a “defining philosophy”. Moreover, to create and promote policy a party has to have a “defining philosophy” on which to base it. For instance, the Liberal Democrats were the only party to have a 100% attendance of its MPs to vote against the Iraq invasion, not because of any pragmatic opinion on weapons of mass destruction but because the party rightly believed that it was against international law, and that was enough; we have been in favour of an united Europe since 1955 because the party is internationalist and sceptical about the relevance of borders; we are in favour of devolution because we are aware of the dangers of centralism and its predilection towards authoritarian government; we are in favour of land value taxation because we believe that it is immoral to exploit land ownership rather than looking towards the common good; and we favour co-operatives in industry because we believe that to set management against labour is counterproductive and deleterious to productivity and is unnecessarily divisive. One could go on but these will do for examples of issues on which the party has a distinctive position stemming from its philosophy.

As for being “stuck in the middle”, that is an entirely illusory geographical point! Left and Right come down to us from the French Revolution and are predicated on the level of economic determinism or laissez faire, whereas Liberals see the spectrum as being between diffusion and centralisation - on which we are extremists!

I am always delighted to have the philosophy analysed, criticised and even attacked but at note that it exists. In recent decades we have prepared and published:

“Our Aim and Purpose”, 1962

“Liberals look ahead”, 1971

            “Liberal Values for a New Decade”, 1980

“2002 Agenda” published as “Freedom, Liberty and Fairness”, 2002 and 2011

“Agenda 2020" currently in preparation.

These are all philosophical statements rather than detailed policy. I enclose a copy of the most recent publication for your delectation!

Best regards

And so say all of us.