Thursday 30 July 2020

Coronavirus inquiry - when?

I was dismayed to hear earlier this week that the second part of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire  is to close down for the summer holidays, and will resume in the Autumn.  Given that the enquiry has, understandably, not continued during the earlier part of the lockdown, that it should shut down again so soon demonstrates an appalling  lack of urgency.

Part 1 of the inquiry, about what exactly happened on the 11th  June, 2017 has already reported.  Part 2 is to examine whose fault it was and in particular how and why substandard cladding was fitted to the tower and who was responsible.

The lack of urgency gives rise to the suspicion that, by the time the inquiry reaches its conclusions,  any  culpable  councillors, contractors or  inspectors will have conveniently died, retired or moved on.

There are in the UK plenty examples of  "Inquiries" which conveniently kick a contentious issue into the long grass until public interest has faded.  One such is the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking by the press and particularly the Murdoch Press.  Part 1, on the behaviour of the press, has already reported and its recommendations more or less ignored.  Part 2 on relations between the police and the press, has been abandoned.  


Has pressure been brought by powerful influences and bungs to the governing party?

Prime Minister Johnson has conceded that there must be a public inquiry into the way his government has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.  No less an authority than David King, government chief scientific advisor  2000 -7, claims:

"With a stronger, transparent SAGE system  in place [in the early stages] tens of thousands of lives  would not have been lost, and our economy would already be on the road to recovery." *

We need to know whether or not this bold claim stands up to scrutiny.

There is an argument that no such inquiry should be held until the pandemic is well under control as it would be wrong for those responsible to be distracted from their primary task of bringing about that control.

There is also an argument, holiday season or not, that an interim enquiry be held right away so that mistakes already made (and the list is a long one) can be identified promptly to avoid further errors. 

Whether or not we have an interim inquiry (and since the decision is in the government's hands that seems unlikely), when an enquiry does come it should be short, sharp and soon.  

Those whose responsibility  is to care for us should not be allowed to let the grass grow so long that their culpability is obscured. 

* Prospect Magazine, Summer Special Issue 2020, page 15

Monday 27 July 2020

Government gets it right

The government's decision to demand a fortnight's quarantine  from travellers returning from Spain was announced with little warning, but surely that's the way things are.

Most of us are very critical of the government's slowness in imposing lockdown  in the initial stages of the pandemic.   Surely they are  to be congratulated on seeing the light and now acting promptly, despite the consequent stranding of some travellers and the cancellation of the holidays of others.

I have considerable sympathy for those who had booked this year's summer holiday last year or before March this year.  Many  will have agonised as to whether or not to go ahead, but decided to take the risk, given that the pandemic seemed to have peaked.  Happily for them their insurance policies, if they took them out, should cover them for some if not all of their financial losses.

I have no sympathy for those who have booked their foreign holidays since mid-March. Their attitude seem to be one off: "We want a continental holiday, we have a right to a continental holiday, and we are going to have one whatever the consequences."

Surely this is the height of arrogance, insouciance, and  indifference to the welfare of others.

Contrast this with the behaviour of the villagers of Eyam in Derbyshire during the Great Plague of 1665/6 

These villagers, under the leadership of their Rector and a Unitarian Minister, voluntarily agreed to quarantine themselves, and did so for 14 months, to prevent the  disease, introduced to Eyam in a roll of tailor's cloth, from spreading to the surrounding areas. 

The one known  exception was their squire, who, in today's jargon, "did a Cummings"  and scarpered.

The example of the villagers of Eyam was highlighted in the early days of the pandemic, when the "self first" brigade were  scrabbling for the last rolls of lavatory paper in our supermarkets.  Some of our fellow citizens seem to have learned little from it.

The frightening lesson of this  pandemic is that we are not. as we had come to think, the masters of nature (if not the actual universe) and able to control it to satisfy every one of our own desires. 

There are floods and fires: there will be more plagues. 

 The Black Death of the 1347-51 killed off at least 30% of Europe's population.  Maybe "we ain't seen nothing yet."

We must learn to moderate our arrogant desire to do as we like and damn the consequences.

Thursday 23 July 2020

UK: bowling alone

The Brexit clique grabbed  the reins  of power in expectation of devoting this year to achieving what they see as the glorious severation of Britain from the EU. They chose Mr Johnson as their putative leader because they discerned in him an election winner:  and they were right -  on a minority vote  of 29% of the electorate he handed them a parliamentary majority of 80+

What the Brexit clique probably didn't anticipate was a series of "events" which they'd have to deal with alongside the Brexit negotiations,  and the ineptitude of this Brexit-packed cabinet with a Prime Minister gifted as a cheerleader but otherwise unfit  to govern, has exposed the folly of Britain without close allies on whom we can rely.

Hong Kong: The behaviour of the Chinese government in flagrantly ignoring the deal by which Hong Kong became  once more part of the mainland fiefdom (One country two Systems for 50 years) is appalling,  and we must have both admiration and sympathy for the doughty protestors  demanding democracy.  

But what can Britain alone do*, against the now mighty Chinese empire?  "We are watching you," is the pathetic response of our Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, rather in the manner of the incompetent schoolmaster addressing  the teen-age trouble-maker now beyond his control.

Huawei:  Back in January our independent sovereign go-it-alone  government decided, after presumably much careful consideration, that this Chinese manufacturer was the best placed company  to build  parts of our 5G network.  However, the US government disapproved, so six months later we kow-tow (sic) to the US, and change our minds.  

This capitulation clearly illustrates our position vis a vis the US with regard to trade talks of anything else.

European Union :  After haggling for five days rather than the scheduled two (an restabilised EU tradition) EU leaders have come up with a scheme by which the richer countries will help the poorer members to cope with the after-effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

 How I regret that we are not part of such a movement towards mature international co-operation.  Instead we "avoid" the EU's offer of participation in a joint purchase of PPE equipment and turn down the opportunity to take part in collective action in acquiring a vaccine against  the virus.  I suppose that if the Oxford vaccine turns out to be a "winner" than this will be hailed as a go-it-alone triumph.  Rather I should prefer participation in joint efforts rather than a scrabble to get there first and scoop the lot.

Russia: There is plenty of evidence that the Russian government is going out of its way to destabilise the established Western democracies.  But the UK government, with its allegedly world-beating intelligence network, simply didn't bother  to look for evidence of such activity in the the Scottish Independence Referendum, the Brexit Referendum or our 2017 election. 

 Perhaps one of the main means by which we remain a "power in the world" (and prop up up our currency) is by allowing London to  a Mecca for money laundering  and for the Tories to be helped to hold on to power by accepting bungs from (former) Russian oligarchs.  Therefore  we mustn't to anything to upset President Putin and his cronies, and this cosy relationship.

Coronavirus: To date the number of deaths from coronavirus among our nearest comparable neighbours is:

UK:           45 000; 
Italy:         35 000;
France:    30 000; 
Spain:      28 000;
Germany:  9 000.  

And yet minister after minister, in the Commons and on the media, claims their  dealing with the pandemic has been a great success even envied by the rest of the world. 

This is Orwellian perception management in spades.

Many of the lockdown restrictions in England have been eased in the past two weeks, in the view of many too soon.  

The government has now abandoned "following the science" and now insists that, taking everything into account (eg the fate of the inner city catering industry if people no longer go to work in the office, versus a potential spike in the virus) it is up to politicians to take a balanced view and make the final decision.

Quite right .

But I suspect that the "science" that most influences the government is neither  that of the medical profession nor the economists, but the findings of the "Focus Groups" - what option is most likely to keep us popular?

So go-it alone-Britain, as we withdraw from former  allies, is now at the mercy of the world's bully nations, the US, China and Russia, and the schemes of  Dominic Cummings, the control-freak apparently  now dominating government policy.

*  The one thing we can do to honour our obligations to the people of Hong Kong is to offer universal (not just those with OBC passports) accesses to the UK with a view to future citizenship.  China couldn't stop us and we don't need anyone's help to do this.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Proiject reality

 I wonder what those who voted for Brexit, especially the less well off in the more depressed areas,  make of the news  in the past few days?

The government has publishedd a hundred page booklet on how to prepare for the non-delayed departure at the end of this year.  If we travel to any EU countries in future, among other things we must:

  • pay for  fully comprehensive health insurance as the European Health Insurance Card, EHIC, is no longer valid for us;
  • beware of roaming charges on our mobiles;
  • make preparations months in advance (and probably pay a fortune in vet bills) if we wish to take our pets.    
 If we run a business and wish to trade with EU countries we must prepare pages of time-consuming, and therefore costly customs documents. 

In spite of denials there is to be a customs barrier between the mainland and Northern Ireland.

The government is spending some £700m on a customs post-cum-lorry car park near Ashford in anticipation of delays.

And the "easiest trade talks in history" seem destined to hit the buffers and result in "no deal."

Meanwhile our government, released from the constraints of Brussels bureaucrats and free to do as it likes, after having carefully  considered in January that it would be a good idea to employ the Chinese company  Huawei to contribute  to our 5G network, has noticed that President Trump has raised an eyebrow in disapproval so have changed their minds. So much for buccaneering independence.

And welcome to chlorinated chicken.

It's worth making clear that it's not the chlorine that's going  to damage us, simply that  US standards  of food production and hygiene are not as stringent as ours, so the chlorine is used  to compensate for this by killing off the bugs.

But it's not all that successful.  Every year one in six Americans fall ill from food poisoning: the equivalent figure in the UK, observing EU regulations and excluding imports of inferior quality, is one in twenty-eight.

Before the Referendum speculations about the above were dubbed "project fear."  The very same clique of charlatans now publish them as "project reality."

In this article:

the then foreign minister of Poland warns Mr Cameron against the folly of leaving the EU. Reading it now brings tears to my eyes.

Sunday 12 July 2020

Paying for it


Siren voices are already shouting alarm about the additional government expenditure necessary to keep the economy alive and kicking during and after the pandemic.  Shock, horror, we are warned:  "The Debt to GDP ratio is now over 100%, something that it hasn't been since 1963."

Well, I was in my mid-twenties in 1963 and I can assure them that it was a very good time to be alive.  Not quite as seminal, perhaps, as Philip Larkin's famous poem claims:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

The sexual revolution, and indeed most aspects of the "swinging sixties," rather passed me by.  I'm not sure now whether to be thankful that I was protected from indulgence or sorry that I missed out, but in the swing or merely observing, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating time of excitement, hope and optimism.

I was in the first few years of my teaching career, pleased with what I was achieving, looking forward to greater challenges to come, and without the slightest apprehension that I should ever be without a job.  Others in my age group who found that they had chosen the wrong careers on leaving school cheerfully jacked in their jobs, retrained and began others.

The Prime-Minister, Harold Macmillan, had told us that we'd "never had it so good" and there was some truth in that.  Employment was secure, the average cost of pint  was around 2/-(about 10p in the as yet to be introduced new money), and houses averaged at £2 670 . The £sterling exchanged at $2.8n nearly three times what it's worth today, and you could enjoy a continental holiday for £50.

The Labour Leader Harold Wilson, from nearby Huddersfield, assured us that life could be even better if we dragged ourselves firmly out of the Tory comfort zone into the second half of the century  and harnessed the "white heat of the technological revolution." In the 1964 general election I attended a Labour Party rally in next-door Cleckheaton, where their Deputy Leader, George Brown, concluded his speech by proclaiming that  if we did all the things he'd outlined "We really will build a New Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."  Even though I was already a member of the Liberal Party I stood up with the rest and cheered.

True, wages were measured in hundreds rather than thousands a year, and there were some unexpected hitches in achieving the New Jerusalem, but the over-all atmosphere was one of great confidence and optimism.

I do not remember anybody ever mentioning that the Debt/GDP ratio was over 100%

In our  economics courses there was a brief discussion of whether or not there National Debt was a "burden"and the standard answer was "No." Indeed, given the fact that growth and inflation would gradually reduce the ratio is was foolish  not to borrow to invest in the future.

This remains broadly true today, though with certain modifications,.

Then almost all the National Debt was held domesticly: it was money we owed ourselves, borrowed from those of us willing to lend (pension funds, insurance companies, financial institutions, holders of National Savings, even gamblers buying Premium Bonds) and paid back by the rest of us, including the lenders, through taxation.  Today, as a result of the "Big Bang" financial deregulation,  about 30% of the debt is held overseas, and if this generation of tax-payers doesn't repay it than future generations will have to.

Then continuous economic growth was seen as natural and desirable.  Today some of us have our doubts and would like us to look towards a Steaday State Economy, with progress being made by fairer sharing rather than further depletion of the earth's scarce resources and poisoning of the environment. Perhaps with more attention we can devise a method of achieving green growth.

On the plus side, back then the interest which had to be paid on the national debt was real. Today interest rates are close to zero if not actually negative, and so there's never been a better time to borrow.

It may be argued that government borrowing, which adds to the National Debt, is fine for investment purposes but not for current expenditure, and that much of what Rishi Sunak  is proposing to spend (eg the furlough payments) is in fact current expenditure.  True, but keeping the economy alive for the future  is, in the present circumstances, equivalent  to investment.

So let there be no worries about how to pay for it.  

Pay for it we will, as we have done in the past.  Personally I hope we will pay for it by intelligent and fair taxation rather than cuts in government expenditure.  A wealth tax has been mooted and supported by no less an authority than the former head of the civil service Sir Gus O'Donnell.  In an article in the Guardian last week, Polly Toynbee estimates that a wealth tax of 10% would yield £1tr, enough to pay for everything we want to do and more so.  

Even it that includes 10% for my modest wealth I'll by happy to vote for it.

Thursday 9 July 2020

Mini-budget a curate's egg

Even with a seemingly bottomless purse it was probably impossible for our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, in his summer splash out to keep the economy going beyond the pandemic, to please everybody.

One disgruntled group are the aviation  industries, who have received no extra help at all. I welcome this.  In the short run, until the pandemic is firmly under control, it is clearly vital to keep travel, and particularly international travel, down to a minimum.  In the longer run, given that air travel is both a major polluter and a major conduit for spreading disease (and there will be more pandemics) it is obviously responsible to severely restrict air travel  and shrink the industry.  Hard lines on those who work in it, but from boatmen on the Thames to miners in the 80s, industries have been forced to bow out, gracefully or otherwise, when their time has come.

The cut in VAT for the food, accommodation and attraction services  is to be welcomed.  It would have been a good idea to give  a special extension of the  furlough scheme to those involved in these industries, which will take time to rebuild as, we hope, the public gain confidence.  

The VAT cut also applies to tourism. I hope this is restricted  to domestic tourism and does not include overseas travel (see second  paragraph.)

The bribe of £1 000 for each furloughed employee retained at the end of the scheme seems wasteful.  Most of these employees would have been retained anyway, thus giving rise to what is known in the jargon as "dead weight cost," (paying for something that would have happened anyway.) It would have been more effective to double or treble the amount  but restrict it  to those retained beyond the first, say three-quarters.

A job creation scheme for the 16 to 25 year-olds, so that none experience unemployment, is very welcome These are the years when young people, full of energy, enthusiasm and hormones, need to be planning their futures both social and economic, and not idly skulking around and venting their spleens on society.  I hope there are not too many pointless retraining  schemes and dead-end occupations. Much  can be learned from the shortcomings of the Youth Training Scheme, YTS, of the 80s.

The cut  in stamp duty on house exchanges  up to the value of 
£500 000 doesn't affect the strapped first time buyer struggling to reach up to £250 000,(or the more modest £100 000 in this part of the country) because those are exempt already.  But the established house-owner trading up to half a million saves up to £14 500.  This seems to be a generous bung to those who already have plenty of money. 

The argument is presumably that those who pay less in exchanging  their houses than they expected will increase their demand for furniture, redecoration or improvements, thus stimulating the economy (but also stimulating the house-exchange market, which  those of us who are not estate agents can do without)

Better to use the money to promote the building of social housing, preferably on brown-field sites.  Or use the money to increase social security payments, the  recipients of which would be highly likely to spend the money at home, thus stimulating their local economies.

All Chancellors of the Exchequer like to have a headline-grabbing gimmick. In my younger days it used to be a penny off beer.  Sunak's gimmick is a half-price pub lunch, but only in August, and only on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays.  I might try it if there's a decent test, track and trace system in operation by then, but I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

#Putney: A C Grayling

 As our media concentrate almost entirely on  the coronavirus pandemic the government is working outside the glare of publicity to bring about an exit from the European Union way beyond anything that was suggested in the Referendum Campaign or promised in parliamentary debates before and after.  

The "easiest trade talks in history" look headed for collapse and a No-deal Brexit  The establishment of customs posts between Britain and Northern Ireland, something which "no British prime minister could ever contemplate" were discussed by a minister (of the Northern Ireland executive, I think) on Radio 4's "Today" programme this morning.

Concerned as we are for our health and safety until the pandemic is brought under control, the fact remains that leaving the EU, even if some sort of terms are achieved, will be a serious blow to our economy, culture  and international standing, and the arrangements with Ireland could easily lead to the break-up of the Union.

What are we to do?  Has the question already been answered?  Do we just sit back and let it happen?

The philosopher A C Grayling, in a polemic #Putney, written on the 22nd June, answers with a resounding "No!" 

The polemic is in three parts.  

The first argues that, although the Johnson government has constitutional legitimacy, in that it has achieved a majority of 80+ in the Commons, it does not have democratic legitimacy.  Its majority was achieved through a quirk in our inadequate electoral system. Only 29% of the eligible electorate voted for it and, given that: 

"we the people of the UK  have been taken hostage by group whose aims and activities are hostile to  our welfare and well-being," we have not only "a right... but a duty" to oppose it. 

The second part urges " a storm of continuous protest "  to MPs, the established media and social media, and argues  that:

 "[t]he effect of enough people taking one or more  of these forms of protest can be significant, and when some brave individuals do it , others will follow."

The third part argues that in the longer term the UK needs a serious reform of our constitution and political order, and this will not be achieved unless and until the progressive forces in Britain, who together are in the majority, unite. 

The first step will be to achieve a form of proportional representation.  The Greens, Liberal Democrats and nationalists have already taken measures to co-operate on this but the major obstacle is that the Labour Party, the largest of the progressive forces in our politics, and of which Grayling  is a member, has a clause in its constitution which requires it to contest  every seat. He therefore urges that this clause be rescinded, perhaps for only one election, so that PR can be achieved. He writes:

If [the Labour Party] does not suspend this clause, it wrecks the chance of a reforming coalition in Parliament by sharing out  the constituencies  among the opposition parties  on the basis of who  can really win in them .  It is this kind of practical tough action that Labour has to be lobbied hard to take. "  (my emphasis)

If there are any Labour Party members who read this blog I urge them to download #PUTNEY,, take it to a party meeting, present the argument and propose the constitutional amendment.

Non-Labour party members, please write to your MP if she/he is Labour, and  any Labour contacts, attach #PUTNEY and ask them to act similarly.

Friday 3 July 2020

Liberation day - or danger?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the clique now in charge of 10 Downing Street, though first class campaigners, are not much good at responsible government.

In campaigning they won the Brexit Referendum against all the odds, and then an 80 seat majority in the Commons.

Sadly they use the same techniques in government as proved so successful in these campaigns: wild promises, exaggerated ( world beating) language,  distortions of the truth, careless optimism.

The choice of tomorrow , Saturday 4th July, for an easing of social restraints, is a prime example of this: a well-known holiday date, and a weekend - an attempt to launch the end of "lockdown" with a bang, when a whimper would be far more appropriate.

I wonder if any of the "blue light" emergency services, police, fire, ambulance and A&E departments were consulted about the date?  According to this morning's news they are preparing for the sort of mayhem that they normally expect an the last weekend before Christmas, when police prepare to dampen down public disorder and hospitals expect to be cluttered up with alcohol induced accident and injuries.

And now with the added danger of further spreading the coronavirus.

The safest approach to the easing of social lockdown would surely be  to try to make it as low key as possible: certainly not a recognised holiday date, nor any weekend, not even a Monday, because people would anticipate it and splash out the day before - a Wednesday seems the most appropriate.

But no: our gung-ho government wants a festive atmosphere to revive the national spirits (and take away attention to their inadequacies.)  Good campaigning stuff, but the very opposite of good government.

And having presumably having approved the date, if not actually suggesting it in the first place, Prime Minister Johnson has the gall to appeal to us to behave responsibly.

Fortunately, the weather for tomorrow doesn't look too good.  Perhaps the Lord is on our side after all.