Tuesday 30 October 2018

The Budget: largely a PR Fest.

Mrs May had already announced "the end of austerity" at the Tory Conference in September/October.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, in his budget speech yesterday, was not quite so sure: "Austerity is coming to an end."  In other words we're not there yet.

Yet both of them imply that we, the British people, have endured eight years of "hard work" and are now to be rewarded as a result of its success.

What nonsense.

I've heard only snatches of Jeremy Corbyn's response in the Commons and have not yet found a written report, but in essence he said: the eight years of austerity were unnecessary; the economy has grown at a slower level than if the policies of the previous Labour government had been continued; the poor are poorer, the public realm (local government, education, health and welfare services etc) has been devastated; the richest have flourished.

I can't see anything to fault in that analysis.  The only downside is that it was delivered in a hectoring and belligerent tone, which may impress the House of Commons, but falls flat for the people outside who need to be persuaded.  He, and other politicians, need to take a hint from Gilbert and Sullivan:  "Quiet calm deliberation disentangles every knot." - and receives more attention than hot air.

In the past eight years:

  • real-terms funding for local government has been cut by 49%.
  • Home Office expenditure on the police has been cut by more than 20%  -  there are now 19 000 fewer officers that in 2010.
  • Legal Aid expenditure has been cut by £950m, leading to "legal aid deserts."  For the disastrous effect on the most vulnerable read "The Secret Barrister."
  • 475 libraries have been closed and 230 000 hours  of library opening have been lost.
  • expenditure on adult social care is falling while demand rises, leading to -
  • the NHS in (yet another) crisis.
  • cuts in school funding have led 2000 normally apolitical head teachers to march on Downing Street in protest.
  • the number of cyclists killed or injured has tripled, at least in part due to poorly maintained roads.*
As Polly Toynbee sums it up in today's Guardian:  "everywhere creeping public squalor."

So what is Hammond proposing to do about it?

Very little to replace the damage done to the public sector over this long period.

If the Tories are genuine in their claim that the austerity policy was solely motivated by an alleged necessity to bring the public finances into order, then the end of austerity should mean that the sector should be replenished.  If it is not, than we must conclude that the motive all along was to reduce the size of the state.

There's a bit of money to help ease the pain of the Universal Credit fiasco, and something for filling in the potholes.  But the big news is a headline "give away" (more accurately described as a "not taken") for tax payers of £3bn.  My share is to be £306, but not until 2019..  If I were a "higher rate" taxpayers it would be £800+

"Unto him that hath shall be given" seems to be one one bit of the Bible the Tories understand..

This is a "tweaking at the edges"  Budget of the sort which which could have been produced at any time in the last 60 years.  "Fiddling while Rome burns" and "Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" are metaphors which spring to mind.

Nothing to tackle the great issues of today:

  • shamefully, at a time when the threats of climate change become daily more parent, the "fuel duty accelerator" remains frozen for the ninth year running.
  • there is no move to reduce rising inequality and finance the increasing need for care for the elderly by taxing the unearned increments rusulting from rising house prices.
  • or land taxes.
  • or a Tobin type tax on financial transaction.
We may be 18 years into the 21st Century, but British political and economic thinking is still stuck in the last quarter of the 20th

* Most of these figures are taken  from the New Statesman, 12 - 18 October, 2018

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Brexit: arguments of quality

I admit to being prejudiced, but it seems to me that the Brexiteers make only four contritions to the Brexit debate, which they do with increasing stridency and in the threatening manner commonly associated bullies.    They are:

1. We are leaving the EU at 11am  on Friday 29th March  next year.  That's it; end of story.

2.  We are implementing the will of the British people.

3. It is undemocratic to question or attempt to reverse the result of the referendum of June 2016.

4. Just admit it: you lost. Losers! 

In fact all  mean much the same thing.  Martin Kettle expresses it very well in a recent Guardian article

". . .Britain’s vote to leave the European Union [is claimed to be] not just decisive but the immutable will of an entire people that cannot be questioned – or compromised."

By contrast the arguments to revisit the decision seem to me to be perfectly reasonable

1.  Yes, it's tedious I know, becasue we've been through it all before, but the 2016 referendum result by no means expresses the will of the entire British people.  Only 37% of those entitled to do so  voted for leave, 34% voted to remain and 27% didn't vote at all.  Some of the people most affected  -  British citizens then aged 16 and 17,  and EU citizens from other countries but resident in the UK - weren't allowed to vote.  This hardly adds up to clarion call for action.

2.  Nor is it undemocratic to give us, or our Parliament, the chance to think again. Brexiteers conveniently forget that the most prominent among their number, Nigel Farage, argued that if the result were close, say 52% to 48%, then there should a  re-run.  That was said, of course when he expected Leave to lose.  And David Davis has said that a democracy is not a democracy if it does not have the chance to think again.

There are plenty of examples of provision oir second thoughts in the British constitution.  If the government loses a key vote in the Commons, which should cause it to resign, it can hold a second "vote of confidence" the following day to test if MPs really meant it.

Most recently, in 2015 we held a general election which produced  a Conservative government with a small majority. In spite of the Five Year Parliament Act, Mrs May felt that we should "think again" so called another election in 2017 to obtain a larger majority.  That turned out to be the wrong call from her point of view, but never the less illustrates the illogicality of her stubborn determination not to revisit the Brexit decision.

3.  We are now aware of irregularities in the Leave campaign: illegal over-spending, misinformation and, possible Russian interference..

4.  And we are now aware that many of the key promises made by the leave campaign just don't stack up. I'm sorry to bring this up yet again, as in an earlier post I promised my most persistent and effective interlocutor, sadly Anonymous, that he  could have the last word.

"Anonymous"  claimed that all the arguments against Brexit had been aired in the 2016  Referendum and dismissed by the electorate (ie 37% of it).  But much of what was speculation is now fact.

  • It is a fact that the value of the £sterling has depreciated by some 12%.  Those of us who went abroad on holiday have experienced the effects of that, and we are all now seeing the effect on prices in the shops.  
  • It is now a fact that that leaving negotiations are far from "the easiest thing in the world" but are proving very difficult.  
  • It is clear that the remaining 27 are not "toast in our hands" becasue "they need us more than we need them."   
  • We can not have "all he benefits frown outside" hat we have inside." 
  • The rest of the world shows no sign of rushing to give us generous trade deals far superior to those we already have as EU members.

Most importantly, the issue of the Irish border is not a minor matter which will be solved by clever technology, even if it's not yet invented..  The problem  is probably intractable.

It has become customary to blame the EU negotiators for this, arguing that they are using it as a stick to make life difficult for us.  It is worth remembering that the people of Ireland, both parts, are our kith and kin, and a hundred years ago all of them were our fellow citizens.  If the EU negotiators are insisting on a viable solution to the avoidance of a hard border, it is on behalf of the Irish, and,  giving the slippery attitude of our own government, the EU should be praised for making sure that the people of that  part of Ireland that remains an EU  member is properly protected.

So there is every reason for a rethink.  The quickest and cleanest way would be a free vote in parliament.  If our MPs haven't the guts for that, then a People's Vote.

Monday 15 October 2018

Chequers deal, Norway deal, Canada +? Why I don't care.

Some commentators claim that we’re on the brink of the biggest constitutional crisis since Lloyd George’s People’s Budget and I find I’m not holding my breath with excitement.

The reason is simple.  I don’t really care what kind of deal the negotiators come up with, because I know that any deal that can be salvaged from the mess (and I rather suspect that after the heightened  brinkmanship of the final  couple of days something will be produced which Mrs May and the Express and Sun will hail as a triumph and the government will pootle on for a few more months) will be no-where  near as good as the deal we already have and could continue to have by staying in the EU.

So the minutiae of details that emerge from the leaks, and the punditry of the politicians and commentators, just washes over me.  I have made up my mind – in fact it has never changed -  and so will get on with my life.

I suspect that much the same can be said of the average man and woman who have voted for Leave.  They “made up their minds” back in 2016, gave the establishment the kick in the solar plexus they felt it deserved, don’t want to know the details and probably don’t really care what option is chosen provided it is called Brexit.  They’ll leave the details to bigwigs who care about these things.

These similar attitudes of mind give me a useful insight into the way “normal” politics operates.  Most people see their party allegiance, or lack of it, as a given.  “We are Labour, always have been and always will be,” says one tribe  in a threatening sort of way.  “We’re Conservative,” says another with a slightly superior expression. “  (One of my friends says it as though it were as given as her blood group.)   A tiny remnant says “We’re Liberal.”  Bless.

The point is not that they don’t care, but they have lives to live, mortgages or rents to pay, relationships to establish or maintain, children to educate, mouths to feed, holidays to fix, parent to look after etc.,  and they leave it to the anoraks to fix the details.

This is an attitude which we anoraks find difficult to comprehend, and for Liberal anoraks, is infuriating.  But the present frantic hoo-ha in the Westminster bubble and attendant media, and to which I am indifferent, has given me an understanding.

I firmly believe, along with the distinguished company of Aristotle, that we are all political animals, and will continue to try to raise awareness of the best solution to the problem, which is a Free Vote in parliament.  David Davis has given unexpected, though unintended, credence to this view by calling upon his former cabinet colleagues to “respect our constitution,” which makes great play of the sovereignty of parliament.  
Failing that, go for a “People’s Vote.”   Good luck to the marchers on Saturday.

Monday 1 October 2018

Playing or practising politics?

Yesterday I caught a radio clip from Theresa May's TV interview with Andrew Marr.  She claimed that Labour were  "playing politics" with the Brexit issue whereas she was striving to achieve what is best for the country.

As a forensic examination of the situation this leaves a lot to be desired.  "Could do better," on a school report would be generous.

My preferred definition of politics is "government by discussion" and it would be nice to think that our politicians were all calmly engaged in discussing what is best for the country.  Even better if they extended their discourse towards to what is best for Europe and, beyond that, the World.  The creation of the EU and the UN are both important and constructive steps in that mature direction.

I presume that by "playing politics" Mrs May means abusing the political situation for personal or party advantage rather than the good of the country..  If so she has not stinted on cheek.

It is perfectly obvious that it is the Conservative party that has used and is using the European Union issue for party advantage. It was the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who called a referendum, not because it was in the national interest, but because he feared that his party's  support was leeching to UKIP.

Until the UKIP leaders, described by Cameron as "fruitcakes and closet racists," began stirring the pot, membership of the EU was in the mid-teens in the order of of voters' concerns, way behind the economy, employment, housing, education etc. Mrs May, who clearly prefers  the softest possible Brexit (she voted "Remain") keeps the no-deal option on the table in order to placate the extreme Brexiteers and hold her party together.

It can hardly be argued that the leading  Brexiteer, Boris Johnson, is campaigning from conviction.  Before the Referendum he allegedly agonised until  the last moment as to which side he would support.  Presumably he therefore  feels there is not much difference either way.  So what can the  motive be for his intemperate  anti-EU campaigning other than personal advancement?

Labour's position is not, by contrast, Simon-pure.  Rather than "playing politics" it could be argued  that they have opted not to play at all, but to watch from the side-lines as the Tory factions tear their party apart, or so they hope.  This could be a good strategy, but again, for party-advantage rather than what is best for the country.

To be fair, all parties believe that what is best for the country is to have them in charge and making the decisions.

However, in our current political situation, the most serious since the Second World War, it is surely time to put country before party.  The way to achieve this, as I've argued earlier, is for parliament to take off the party whips and have a free vote among members.  That is the British way.

Our constitution is by no mean perfect, but it has been honed over  several centuries. We are now a representative parliamentary democracy.  MPs are not delegates: they are elected by their constituents to hear all the arguments and use their judgement for the good of the country.

Parliament is the place where all options can be on the table, calm and informed debate can take place and politics can be practised at its best, not played as a tawdry party  game.