Tuesday 25 February 2020

Land of misplaced glory

There have been two announcements over the weekend to boost our fading self-confidence.

The "new" British passport is to be issued from the end of next month. Its cover will revert to the former blue (though I had a good look at my old one and, even in the daylight, it seems to me to be black) and will not mention the EU.  It was, however, designed in France and will be manufactured in Poland.  (The French sounding but British company Thomas de la Rue failed to get the contract.)  Further and better particulars are available here.  I find  it acutely embarrassing that we attach such symbolic importance to such a pathetic gesture.

It has also been announced that on the 8th May, the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, there are to be commemorative parades, services of thanksgiving (national congratulation?)  in Westminster Abbey and probably elsewhere, and recordings of a speech by Winston Churchill blasted out in various public places.  This year 8th May falls on a Friday, but it will be a public holiday, not an extra one (the Tories aren't that generous) but to replace the normal early May Bank Holiday.

In my view, whilst not wishing to minimise the heroism and noble intentions of the many who fought in the War, the best way of remembering the conflict would be to show newsreels of the thousands  of refugees and displaced persons, the maimed and injured, and reminders of the 24, 000,000 military and civilian deaths suffered in the conflict by the Soviet Union, 20,000,000 Chinese, 6,000 000+ Germans, 5,600 000 Poles, (will their contribution to the success of the Battle of Britain even get a mention?) 2,000,000+ Japanese, 1,500,000 Indians, along with approximately half a million each in France, the UK, Italy and the USA.  Further and better particulars are available here to put things in perspective.

What is needed is not a nostalgic view of an imagined glorious past, but a reminder of why the UN, EU, Bretton Woods institutions, and   various Declarations of Human Rights with supporting courts were created: civilised nations working together to to build a fairer and more peaceful world.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

The Return of Keynesianism - inadvertently?

To note the the 83rd anniversary of the publication of Keynes's "General Theory " a leader in yesterday's Guardian gave this expanded definition of Keynesianism:

  • a state-guided investment policy
  • a generous social welfare system
  • progressive taxes
  • a low interest rate
  • monetary policy run by a nationalised Bank of England
  • strict capital controls
  • managed trade
  • non-casino financial markets.
I love the bit about "non-casino financial markets" (though Keynes himself did quite well on behalf of his college by dealing on the stock exchange).

The article claims  that Keynesianism was abandoned because the Tories felt that generous welfare spending undermined capitalism.  I'm not so sure about this.  In my view Keynesianism fell into disrepute not because of any flaws in the theory, but because its use was abused. 

The theory was and is that the government should moderate the effects of the trade cycle by deficit spending to avert a downswing (leading to stagnation and higher unemployment) but take demand out of the economy (by raising taxes of cutting expenditure, or both ) to moderate the inflationary effects of an upswing.

Unfortunately govermnets quickly learnt to use the policy, not so much to control the trade cycle, but rather the election cycle.  Bursts of expenditure were engineered to create a feel-good factor as an election approached, and then another one a just in time for the next election.  The "pay back" bit tended to be forgotten. This  led to absurdly high rates of inflation in the 1970s.

Keynesianism was replaced as the predominate orthodoxy by neo-liberal monetarism, growth was stifled has been virtually non-existent since 2008.  Unemployment has remained high (don't be fooled by the Thatcher  revisions of the method of calculating it, and the present precarity of those on zero-hours contracts, part-time workers who want to be full-time, and the involuntary self-employed, whose existence makes the crude figures look attractive)

The irony is that, if the Johnson government turns out to be as prolific as its utterances pretend (and the forced "amalgamation of No 11 with No 10 indicates that that is on the cards) then this Tory  government could bring about the revival that most macro-economists (and this humble blog) have been calling  for since 2010.

Tuesday 11 February 2020

No case for HS2

I suppose that, now the Johnson government has engineered for itself an 80 seat majority, we shall have to get used to fuming with impotence as it imposes wrong decisions on us.

HS2 is a case in point.  Given the enormous urgency of climate change, why on earth are we still toying (if a cost of £100bn+ can be called toying) with high speed vanity projects to whizz the wealthy hither and thither?  HS2, along with the expansion  of Heathrow, and Leeds and Bradford airports, should be off the agenda.  We really do have to shift our priorities.

Specific to HS2, at least one alternative project, by railway experts Quentin Macdonald and Colin Elliff, offers far better connectivity at a fraction of both the environmental and monetary costs. It is called HSUK. Details of the scheme can be found here http://www.highspeeduk.co.uk/
 If you're not convinced,Christian Woolmer, sometime aspirant Labour candidate for the mayoralty of London and a another well- informed railway-buff, has a highly critical article in the London Review of Books which is well worth a read. Find it at  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/christian-wolmar/whats-the-point-of-hs2

My own inexpert opinion is that HS2, if it goes ahead, is more likely to suck enterprise out of our region  to London, rather than energise the Northern Powerhouse. 

There is just a hope that some of the new Conservative MPs  elected to represent Labour's former heartlands will flex their  muscles and give the scheme the thumbs down.

Friday 7 February 2020

Windermere's children: What's in a name?

Yesterday I re-watched the BBC 2 programme about the 300+ Polish refugee children  brought to the UK  in 1945 for "rehabilitation" after their incarceration in concentration camps.  For details see this previous post:


and if you missed it I urge you to watch it on


One of the most striking features is the emphasis the children place on their identities, names and families.

The first boy asked to introduce himself automatically uncovers his forearm to reveal his number tattooed concentration camp number.  We get the message of dehumanisation.

One  boy was included in the group at the last minute because another was withdrawn for reasons that I failed to catch.  Unfortunately the "paperwork" wasn't changed and so he was travelling under the others name.  He see him anxiously enquiring as to whether this has been rectified.  I think that by the end of their stay in Windermere it hadn't been but he was assured that: "as the wheels turned and in the fullness of time, it would be.  Welcome to England."

A third boy is addressed by the archetypally insensitive PE master as: "Son."  He responds angrily that he is the son of ***** ***** of Poland. Told that "It's just a phrase," he replies: "Well, don't use it with me."

A modern trend that I find disturbing as that we are urged, and in some cases required, to blur or disguise our identities with "user names."  These are widely used on social media platforms and we can have no idea who is saying what about whom, or being rude to whom and telling lies about whom.  

As Peter Pomerantsev in "This is Not Propoganda" describes, in the fields of "fake news" and opinion distortion the use of fake or untraceable identities is endemic.

This poses  a serious danger to the working of democracy, and is in urgent need of international regulation.

In all spheres, and not just politics, we need to know who is saying what, how they can be contacted for correction if necessary, and, where appropriate, who is financing  them.

Those Polish refugees knew from bitter experience the importance of their identities.  We should take a leaf our of their book.

Thursday 6 February 2020

Lock 'em up ant throw away the key?

The Tories have long prided themselves on being the "tough on crime" party, advocating tougher sentences for  all the errors some of our flesh are heir to.  It's popular stuff and helps win elections.  

So it's no surprise that the government's most publicised reaction to Sunday's knife attack in Streatham by  convicted terrorist Sudesh Ammam is to  alter the law so that those convicted of terrorist offences lose their right to automatic release when they've served half their sentence.

What comes as a surprise to me, and I suspect to many others , is that such a right to "automatic release" exists at all.  I had supposed that early release, for terrorists or anyone else, was conditional on good behaviour.  Such a condition is necessary to enable the prison authorities to steer their inmates toward co-operation.  It should be up to an independent parole board to decided whether or not "good behaviour" has been achieved.

Clearly Ammam  had not co-operated with the prison (he had refused to take part in "deradicalisation" activities) so did not deserve any favours and should not have been released.  So if that is what the law actually  says, then it should be changed, though whether it is fair to change it retrospectively in the case of prisoners to whom early release has already been promised is another matter.

However, the government  also urgently needs to look carefully and equally urgently at the other factors involved: the gross overcrowding in our prisons; state of the prison education service; facilities for rehabilitation; and the strength  of the probation service for supervision after release (and supervision of the many  who have committed offences but don't really need to be sent to prison.)  

All of these service have been starved since the austerity regime post 2010, and they weren't all that well funded before .

It was a Conservative Home Secretary,   Douglas Hurd, who warned their conference that, vote winner though it might be, "Prison is an expensive was of making bad people worse." 

Our prison, rehabilitation and probation services are now a national disgrace.  We can hope that the newly prolific Tories will use these recent and unwelcome incidents to put the fundamentals  right , and not just rely on the popular headline-winning gesture