Thursday 26 November 2020

No change in the Tories' spots


That’s an advertisement on TV by an insurance company that promises “not to make a drama our of a crisis.”

With yesterday’s spending review, and the reporting of it by their supporting media, our government seem determined to do the opposite.  We are warned of “the biggest UK slump in 300 years” and there is much  talk of “hard decisions “ and “tough choices.”

Let’s be clear.

There is a public health crisis. It is very serious.  Over 50 000 people have died because of it.  We need to make every possible personal sacrifice (such as having a nuclear family Christmas, minimising social mixing and travel, isolating ourselves  if we have been in contact with someone with the virus, etc) to help contain it.

There is no economic crisis.

True, there has had to be, and will continue to be, extra public expenditure both to deal with the crisis (buying PPE, setting up a Test and Trace system, caring for those infected) and compensating those  whose normal economic activity has had to be suspended.  It is a shame that neither has been done very efficiently - indeed billions of pound have been wasted and  had the government  responsible been even marginally to the left there would have been uproar.

However, the rise in public debt to around 100% of national income (the debt to GDP ratio) is probably inevitable.

And such a level debt is perfectly manageable, as explained in an earlier post

It is not a crisis.

In 1945, at the end of the war, the government’s debt was not 100% of GDP but more like two and a half times GDP - around 250%.

It remained at above 100% until 1963.

In that period successive governments introduced free milk for all schoolchildren, universal secondary education with  new schools to facilitate it; provided free higher education along with maintenance grants; created the National Health Service (which included free dentistry );  took  key industries such as the railways, water, electricity, and gas into public ownership  and compensated the previous owners; increased the capacity of the building industry to build  300 000 houses per year, mostly for affordable rents; introduced family allowances; and still paid  off 60% of the debt. 


Even while the debt level was around 100% the 1960s were great fun, as already explained in that  earlier post.  It was the time of “swinging Britain,.” Even though Philip Larkin may have exaggerated its potency:

  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.

 - it was a good time to be alive

But not for the first time, the Conservative government now puts into practice the dictum attributed to Winston Churchill;  “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” 

Back in 2008/9, when we had a world financial crisis, as soon as the Tories got hold of the government in 2010 they put the brakes on the Brown/Darling creative response which had started a recovery and introduced “austerity” in order to implement their dogma of a smaller, less caring , state. 

They managed to convince the public that his was necessary, so that, while those  who  caused of the financial crisis got off scot free the poorest in our society paid the price.

Now that we have a genuine, and expensive, public health crisis, the talk of “difficult  decisions” and “hard economic choices” is being bandied around to soften us up for the next stage of the process.

Once again it is the poorest who will be expected to pay the price.  The public service pay freeze will affect some of the lowest paid workers who have actually most exposed to the dangers of the virus and kept the health and hygiene service going.  The £20 extra for Universal credit is to be discontinued.  Both of these, and other cuts , will take demand out of the economy just a the time when it is most needed to generate a revival. The decision to cut our Oversees Aid Budget by over £4bn at the very time when the poorest in the world need help most is a source of both self harm and national shame.

 It is not a mater of that, like the Bourbons, the Tories have learned nothing from their past experiences.  They know exactly what they are doing: using the public expenditure necessary to deal with a genuine health crisis to further their aim of an even more minimalist state, isolated from the EU, in which the haves flourish and the weakest go to the wall. 




Tuesday 24 November 2020

cf Wartime Christmases

 I was only seven years old when the Second World War ended in 1945 so my memories are probably more attuned to the immediate post-war years than the war years themselves.  Nevertheless I think they make a valuable comparison to what so many of our population feel is their entitlement today.

I can recall no great family gatherings on Christmas Day.  My father had four brothers and two sisters, my mother one brother, all living within easy reach. All but the two sisters had families.  However our Christmas Day was very much a matter of the nuclear family, though that included my maternal grandmother, who was widowed and lived with us.

 We did not have turkey for dinner, or chicken, which was still a luxury food.  Instead, we had pork, which my father would praise as "like a bit of chicken."  I have no recollection of Christmas crackers.  Maybe they weren't available, or maybe my parents regarded them as a frivolous  luxury.

 There were presents, and they must have been substantial, or at least bulky, since my sister and I both hung up pillow cases rather than stockings for Santa Claus to fill.  The prized gift was still reckoned to be the orange at the bottom of the sack.

 There wasn't a lot of time to gloat over the contents of the sack on Christmas Morning as I was a member of the Church Choir  and our fist job was  sing carols round the wards of the local hospital.

 Our choir master was called Mr Pride. However the hospital matron  caused  us all to giggle by referring to him as Mr Proudlove.  This error was never corrected over the years.  Maybe it was meant to be a joke.

 After our stint at the hospital we ran the mile or so down the hill to Church for the major morning service at 10.45.  This was the fourth of the day. There would have been a Midnight Mass but we choirboys didn't sing at that.  The choir men would have, and I suppose Mr Pride would have played the organ.  (I now realise what a hero he was.)  There would have  been a said Communion at 8 o'clock and a Sung Communion at 09.15.  Who played the organ for that I can't remember.  The singing was supported by a small group of ladies.

 Our 11.15 service was a "double."  We first sang Matins up to and including the collects, then segued seamlessly into a full Choral Communion.  Then it was home for the pork dinner with apple sauce  followed by Christmas Pudding (bought not home-made).

 I presume there was a Christmas Day radio broadcast by the King but I can't recall our ever tuning in to it.  Time at last for toys. If Christmas Day happened  on a Sunday it would be back to Church for Evensong at 06.30

Every  Boxing Day Batley played Dewsbury in the local Rugby League Derby,  though I don't suppose that actually continued during the war. My father used to take me in later years and I disappointed him by never becoming a fan.

 By writing this I'm not trying to emulate Monte Python and the famous competition as to who had the most deprived upbringing, but  merely to provide a contrast to present  expectations.  

My family Christmas was luxurious compared with those whose fathers were in the forces.  Mine was not "called up,"  partly because he was too old, and also because as  spinner in a woollen mill his occupation was "reserved."  We in the Heavy Woollen District specialised in making the heavy cloth for the uniforms of the armed forces.  (In the Crimean War we made them for both sides).  

But thousands of children didn't see their fathers for up to five years.  Similarly for many sweethearts and wives, and parents who didn't see their sons and daughters. Contact of a sort was maintained by the BBC "Home Service" which linked up with "Forces Radio" with "Two Way Family favourites."

It's worth also remembering that the Christmas Holiday for workers was just two days (one I believe in Scotland, because New Year's Day was also a holiday for them, though it wasn't in England  until 1974.) It is a measure of the economic progress we have made that we now regard the entire Christmas to New Year period as "the holiday" and some even stretch it to a fortnight.

However, the present pandemic is by far and away the most serious crisis mainland UK has experienced since 1945.  

 Prime Minister Johnson likes wartime analogies.  This week we've already had "the scientific cavalry" and "a final push".  There can be no doubt that if the lockdown rules are relaxed over the two days of Christmas (or five?) this will cause an increase in infections.  The ones who become carriers may not suffer seriously but some will inevitably pass the disease on to the more vulnerable who will.  This will equally inevitably lead to a post-Christmas spike in serious illnesses and deaths, and a further strain on the NHS staff who are already close to exhaustion.

So It is no great sacrifice to ask us, for this year only, to abandon our collective winter "knees-up" and substitute a quieter nuclear family observance instead.  The aim should be that as many of us as possible survive for Christmas next year.

Will our government have the courage to take this decision, or will they yet again, be guided not by "the science" but their focus groups?

Thursday 19 November 2020

World Toilet Day

Today, 19th November, is World Toilet Day.  

Were you, or will you be, siting comfortably, able to "perform" in privacy, without fear of interruption, in reasonably hygienic surroundings, with your waste flushed away for scientific disposal at the press of a button or twist of a handle, and soap and clean water available  to wash your hands while you sing "Happy  birthday" twice?

Lucky you and me.  Yet something like 2.4 million people, or about one in three of the world's population, don't have this luxury which we take for granted.

For those without the alternatives don't bear hinging about.  In rural areas it's often  "open defecation" in the "bush", for women in particular at dawn or dusk, with the danger of stepping on someone else's deposit, being bitten by a snake of maybe attacked by a rapist.  In urban areas it may be a plastic bag, thrown away as far as possible afterward - "Flying Toilets" in the jargon.*

One of the things I do when not in "lockdown" is act as an accredited speaker for "Water Aid".  Our fund-raising advertisements usually feature pictures of happy children, a water pump and blue globules of clean water being splashed around to general enjoyment.  This pulls in the money to help the 663m people in the world (around 10x the UK's population) without one to provide themselves with a supply of clean water.  

But an equally important, though less glamorous part of our work, is helping people to provide themselves with  easily maintained sanitation facilities.

 For this, and the third arm of our work, education in hygienic practices, we are funded by donations from individuals, a cut from the profits of the water industry, and a great dollop of a grant form "UK Aid", the government's overseas aid funding.

Today the UK government is  announcing an increase in our defence expenditure of £16.5bn spread over 4 years.  That's £4.125bn a year.

In the past week there have been rumours that  the government is toying with the idea of cutting our Overseas Aid Budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%.  That would amount to roughly the same amount: £4.25bn per year.

 Yes, it is our government's duty to keep us safe, but we also have a responsibility to the rest of the world, not to mention a promise to devote 0.7% of our income (that's just 70p in every £100,) to help those who lack the basic facilities we take for granted.

It's quite probable that some of that aid goes a drain that wasn't quite the one  intended.  Sadly overseas aid  is by no means the only area where that can happen.

  In his blog earlier this year Dominic Cummings wrote:

[the defence procurement process] "has continued to squander   millions of pounds, enriching some of the worse corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door  of officials/lobbyist."

 Mr Cummings is no longer  flavour of the month at the moment in anybody's book, but he may have a point.

If I didn't have the facilities to "defecate with dignity" every day, at any time of day,   I know where I'd prefer that £4bn to go

 " For further and better particulars I recommend "The Big Necessity,  Adventures in the World of Human Waste," by Rose George, (Portobelo,2008)

Tuesday 17 November 2020

The damage Thatcher did.


This morning I heard  a snatch of the Radio 4 news item in which someone whose name I didn't catch pointed out that 2020 marks 300 years since Sir Robert Walpole became Britain's first prime Minister (though he didn't like the title.)  So a survey has been carried out as to whom people think has been our best prime minister. 

 It's no surprise  that Winston Churchill ( a good Liberal in his early days) came out top of the rankings, but I'm quite shocked  that Margaret Thatcher should come in at fourth place.  In my view her premierships  are far and away the most damaging of the post war years, and their aftermath is responsible  for many of our current woes.

  Here, off the top of my head, are fifteen  reasons why.

 1.  Destroying 1/5th of UK's  industrial capacity by over-tight monetary policy (dubbed "sado-monetarism") in her first years as PM  but making no attempt to encourage replacement of  the jobs destroyed - simply leaving  things to "the market." 

2.  Thus causing unemployment to rise to 3m

3.  Rather than setting up a Sovereign Wealth Fund, squandering the North Sea Oil bonus on financing this level of unemployment.
4.  Withdrawing the Royal Navy presence from  the South Atlantic, thus apparently signalling to the Argentinian Junta that the UK was no longer interested in defending the Falklands.
5.  Evading a diplomatic solution to the Falklands War which ensued, and thus causing  255 deaths in the British military forces  and 649 Argentinian deaths, largely of young, untrained and ill-equipped conscripts.

6. Weakening local government  by abolishing the Greater London Council and other Metropolitan County Councils (inculcating ours in West Yorkshire) becasue they tended to have Labour majorities,  and generally starving local government of funds and initiatives.
7.  Indiscriminate and often illegal use of police to fight the miners, thus giving rise to divisions in the country that have not yet  been healed.
8.  Introducing the "right to buy" council houses at a massive discount and the refusal to allow local authorities to use the receipts to build replacements. Rather than  being occupied by proud "property-owning democrats" most of these houses are now in the hands of private landlords on a "buy to let" basis and there is a massive shortage of houses at affordable rents (or prices within the deposit raising capabilities of even the moderately well remunerated.)  

9.  Revisions of government statistics, particularly on unemployment, so that we no longer trust them.
10.  Aggressive privatisation and outsourcing of national and local government  services on the unproven grounds that the private sector is more efficient.  We now know to our very large cost, in money and lives (re coronavirus) that it isn't.

11.  Delay in joining the ERM, and then doing so at an unviable rate.
12.  The "Big Bang" which has led to the world becoming prey to under-regulated  capital flows, hedge funds, speculation  and the UK economy becoming over-reliant on the City of London.

13.  Aggressively promoting the  opening-up  of the EU to Eastern Europe before either they or the EU  were really ready.
14  Embarrassing opposition to German reunification.
15. In alliance with President Reagan supporting through the World Bank and IMF the Washington Consensus of outdated monetary orthodoxy, causing misery throughout much of the Global South.
There are probably a few reasons I've overlooked.  Suggestions welcome. 
A friend adds:
 16 Turning against the EC when Germany was reunified, and when Delors as Commission president persuaded the UK Labour Party that the EC was creating a ‘social Europe’ rather than a free market Europe – thus encouraging the drift of the Conservative Party from a Europhile to- wards a deeply Eurosceptic one.

It is now our task to put he UK and the world back together again.
Another friend points out two GOOD THING:
She resisted the calls for a National Lottery and for more relaxed regulation of the gambling industry.  Good for her had her Methodist upbringing.

Sunday 15 November 2020

10 Drowning Street


The media are full of speculation as to the whys and wherefores of the shenanigans in Downing Street.  There are briefings and counter-briefings but I suspect the truth has yet to be revealed.  Though I have no claim to be well informed I suspect my own musings  are no wilder than anyone else's.

 First a couple of questions:

Question 1

Does 10 Downing Street keep a stock of cardboard boxes so that those dismissed with immediate effect (wie) can carry away their personal effects?  (One might ask a similar question of the Trump White House.)

Question 2.

Do those dismissed wie get a week's month's pay in lieu of notice, or three months', or a golden handshake?  It's an important question because it is"our" money, "taxpayers' money" and the Conservatives like us to think they are very careful with public money and only spend it frugally and wisely.  So far I haven't heard or read much about any severance payments.  We should be told.

Now for some thoughts:

First it's quite normal for  a prime minister to have a few close allies  around himself /herself who form a "kitchen Cabinet." These have normally been other cabinet ministers and  members of the party, with perhaps the odd "advisor" (Bernard Ingham with Mrs Thatcher, Alistair Campbell with Tony Blair). 
Johnson's cabal seems to have been entirely of  non-cabinet members.  That the government as a whole have failed so dismally is Johnson's own fault really, since he appointed  both cabinet members and cabal not on their ability, but on their "soundness" re Brexit.  However, sooner or later senior party members were bound to resent their lack of influence - that the "unelecteds" were setting the agenda.

It seems to me likely that what has ignited the row is that Johnson is veering towards a deal with the EU and Cummings (and Cain - I'd not heard of him until last Friday)  are hardliners who would prefer "no-deal."  
Johnson needs a deal, first of all because he promised in last year's election that a deal was "oven ready."  Secondly to avoid the logistical chaos which is bound to arise, especially in Kent, if there really is no deal, and  thirdly, that no deal would upset the Irish arrangement and therefore President-Elect Biden..

The most optimistic possibility, put forward  by the former labour minister  Denis MacShane  is that, now that  the hard-liners have gone (though not from the Party: Rees Mogg and others are still around) Johnson could do the sensible thing, beg the EU for a further year's extension, using the coronavirus as an excuse, to avoid the chaos which is bound to ensue if we really do leave on the 1st January 2021.
True the final date for extending the transition has passed, but the EU is good at wriggling round legal difficulties  and I'm sure they would happily find a way if asked.

Thursday 12 November 2020

Voter suppression: alive and well in the UK


One benefit of the prolonged and in-depth coverage of the US election and its aftermath is that we've learned a great deal more about voter suppression.  I  think most of us have known for years about the difficulties faced by black people in exercising their right to vote: outright prohibition, education tests, complex documentation required for registration and so on.  

However now we know about other measures.  The closing of polling centres in predominantly  black areas, so that potential voters have to make longer journeys and queue for longer in order to vote - some say five times as long as in white areas.  Add to that the placing of fake ballot boxes in areas likely to vote Democrat, so that the votes can indeed be "stolen" and destroyed, and the starving of resources for the postal service so that "mail votes,"  more likely to be Democrat votes, arrive too late for the count.

 Such tactics are a disgrace in the world's most powerful, and probably most influential, democracy.  Sadly they are not entirely absent in this land of the alleged Mother of Parliaments.

I have a tangential personal interest.  Late last month a very dear friend of mine, David Shutt, a fellow campaigner for liberalism for over fifty years, moved this amendment in the House of Lords (he's risen to greater heights than I, and deservedly so) to the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill.  

It is the practice that young people are added to the electoral registers at the age of 16 and 17 so that, if an election takes place when they are just 18 they are able to exercise the newly-acquired right to vote. * Apparently the proportion of these young people, called "attainers", who actually get on to the register has fallen from 45% in 2015 to 25% in 2019.

The amendment, which has cross-party support, including Conservatives, proposed that these young people should be automatically registered to vote by the Department of Work and Pensions when that department allocates them a National Insurance Number at the age of 16. Alternatively, the DWP could provide the electoral registration officer of the names of those in their areas, or advise the 16 year-olds on the details of how to register for a vote.  

 The amendment was carried overwhelmingly and, sadly, proved to be David's last contribution to British democracy.  A few days after the debate he was unexpectedly taken to hospital with a condition from which he has since died.  His funeral is next week. 

Earlier in this week the House of Commons with its 80 seat Tory majority rejected this and several other Lords' amendments.  You can bet your bottom dollar (to revert to the US analogy) that had young people been overwhelmingly likely to vote Tory rather than for more progressive parties, it would have been overwhelmingly carried..

 You can find further details of this and other amendments here


*  There is evidence  to show that if young people cast their vote at the first election at which they are elegible - it's a significant rite of passage - they are more likely to vote regularly for the rest of their lives.  Surely another reason, if you believe in democracy, to support this amendment.

Monday 9 November 2020

UK/US relations: Tory chickens coming home to roost


It is suspected that our Government was actually hoping for a Trump win.  If true there can be no more damning  evidence of our increasing isolation among the world's liberal democracies.  

To add to our shame there are good reasons to expect that our  future relations with the US are going to be somewhat frosty, due to the opinions and actions of Tory leaders pasy and present.

 Back in 1916 while he was Mayor of London, when President Barack Obama  expressed support for Britain's remaining in Europe, Mr  Johnson dismissed him as  " part- Kenyan with an ancestral hostility to the British Empire."  Probably true, and not quite as contemptuous as Winston Churchill's dismissal of Mahatma Gandhi as "a half-naked Fakir" but not all that friendly either. President-Elect Biden was Obama's Vice President and they are said to have been very close, almost brothers.

Then in the first week of the Trump Presidency our  then Prime Minister Theresa May scuttled across the  Atlantic to be the first foreign leader greet him and fawn at his coat-tails.  She even invited him to make a State Visit, something which is normally offered only towards the end of a presidency.  When it eventually took place it must have been a considerable embarrassment to the Queen and most of the people involved.  Mr Biden is clearly a generous and forgiving man, but he is hardly likely to be impressed by this fawning on his odious predecessor.

Indeed, Mr Biden is on record as having described PM Johnson as  a "physical and emotional clone of Trump. 

And right down to the events of last week, when it was clear that Joe Biden was the winner although  the victory was not yet official, whereas most democracies, with Germany in the lead, were sending him their congratulations, the British Government was still prevaricating.

Mr Biden's record shows that he is a consummate politician who will not allow personal animosity to damage fruitful diplomatic relations.

But there are two concrete issues which indicate that the UK is far from the "best mate" status British governments would  dearly like.

The first is the EU.  Mr Biden has made it perfectly clear, as did Obama, that the US would much prefer the UK to remain a member.  He is unlikely to go out of his was to rescue us from our own folly.

Secondly is Ireland.  Mr Biden is of Irish extraction and  will be appalled by any measure that endangers the Good Friday agreement  and risks damaging the peace which, fragile as it is, still prevails there.

Such a measure is the Internal Market bill, which if passed will not only break international law and violate the agreement to which Mr Johnson and his government signed up to less than a year ago, but also endangers that peace. The House of Lords is likely to pass amendments to the bill his afternoon.

PM Johnson should whip his 80 majority into accepting them

Thursday 5 November 2020

US Election: a score draw?


Although neither Biden nor Trump has yet reached the winning tally of 270 electoral college  votes it seems that Biden is now the overwhelming favourite to get there.

 If so then those of us who believe in the rational and dignified conduct of public affairs can heave a sight of relief at the end of the awfulness of the Trump presidency. 

Whether America itself will benefit all that much (see later) is by no means guaranteed, but the World as a whole will benefit if the leader its most powerful nation accepts the reality of the climate crisis, the acceptance of international law and co-operation,  and the orderly conduct of international trade.

Unfortunately the wave of revulsion against Trumpist populism for which so many enthusiasts for liberal democracy  had hoped has not happened.   In spite of the vulgarity of  the Trump presidency, its failure to cope with the  pandemic, its disregard of constitutional norms and its blustering rhetoric, the Republican vote has held up well.  

The Democrats have failed to gain control of the Senate, and their majority in the House of Representatives has actually been reduced.  Hence the Biden presidency, if it is realised, will be hamstrung for at least the first two years.                                                          

There will be expert analysis of this result over the coming months, but for now it seems that an Email from a friend of mine, Allan Marriot,  sent some weeks ago, contains considerable insight.  Allan predicted a Trump victory because, whereas Biden was honourable, rational, conventional and respectful of political norms, Trump's supporter were more influenced by his promise of jobs, antagonism towards immigration, standing up to China and , above all, making America great (again?)

Well , with any luck Allan was wrong about the victory, but I think he gave good reasons for the solidity of the support.

In today's Guardian Martin Kettle gives a similar analysis.  He writes:

"Biden ... campaigned as if the Covid-19 pandemic was the main issue.

... But the white working class voters in the rust belt ... [still supported Trump because] they felt ignored, their jobs and communities had gone, they thought others - including foreigners - were getting too good a deal, and they wanted someone to speak for them."

So the the 2020 US election does not, after all, spell the beginning of the end of the populist wave sweeping through the US and Europe. It is a lesson we must learn in the UK.  The lies, bluster and incompetence of the present government will not by themselves bring about their downfall.  

The progressive forces here, rightly appalled by the current shambles, must put together a programme with clearly demonstrates that we have  heard the pleas of the "left behind" and have a constructive plan for a brighter future which includes them.  

Plans to restore the glories of liberal democracy are essential, but they are not by themselves enough.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

US Elecion: Liberal Democacy in intensive care

 As I write this, at noon on 4th November, 41 of the 50 states have declared their results.  In terms of the crucial Electoral College representatives neither Biden nor Trump has yet achieved the necessary 270 electors, but  Biden is ahead with 224 places, Trump behind with 213.

Yet Trump has used all the panoply of the White House -  rows and rows of Stars and Stripes, a band (or recording) playing "Hail to the Chief," - and declared that he has won.

 This is surely fake new to the to the power of n.

On the strength of this  totally false claim Trump has called on the Supreme Court to order all further counting of votes to be discontinued.  How far from the ideals of liberal democracy (as brilliantly explained in Ian Dunt's highly readable  "How to be a Liberal," published by Canbury a few weeks ago) can you get?

I think most of the rest of what used to be called the Western World were hoping for an overwhelming victory for Biden  and the Democrats.  However imperfect they may be, they would represent a return to normalcy and decency.  The worst possible outcome from liberal democrats' (lower case deliberate) of view would have been an overwhelming victory for Trump.

Instead we have the second worst outcome: Biden comfortably ahead on the total vote but only neck and neck on  Electoral College places, and challenges to the validity of the election which could go on for weeks and possibly involve the Supreme Court with its 6:3 Republican majority.

We should not be surprised.

 This has been predicted as the most probable outcome for months.  Clearly Trump anticipated it as he  has spent those months drip-feeding totally unsubstantiated doubts about the reliability of the election  into the public discourse. The mighty Fox News is on his side.

Biden and the Democrats will doubtless put up a doughty fight, but they are on the back foot, (cf Gore in 2020 and the hanging chads) as Trump will use all the trappings of his office, which he retains until next January whatever the outcome, to subvert the democratic will of the people.

 Whether we like it or not the US is the world's leading and by far the most powerful liberal democracy.  We can hope and urge that reason prevails