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.