Monday 29 March 2021

The myth of Tory patriotism

One of C Northcote Parkinson's observations in his seminal "Parkinson's Law" (published 1957 and still well worth a read) is that when successful organisations get round to building grandiose headquarters in London that usually means they they are past their peak and thereafter decline.

 I think there is a parallel here with Tory politicians' obsession with draping themselves with the Union Flag, or even two or three, whenever they  present themselves in public.  Indeed there are hints of a "mine's bigger than yours" competition.

 Of course associating themselves with imperial grandeur is nothing new for the Conservatives .  I remember in my adolescence (political nerd even then) going to hear my Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, speak in Bradford's St George's Hall, and being the only person not to rise from my seat in respect as the organ swelled to the strains of "Land of Hope and Glory" as he entered.  I have no evidence whatsoever but I suspect that the Bullingdon Club, of which both prime ministers  Cameron and Johnson were members, sometimes roared out "Rule Britannia" as they trashed  restaurants for fun.

 If the Tories  were really proud of Britain they would be nurturing rather than trashing the institutions for which we are genuinely admired.

Top of that list must surely be the BBC, universally acknowledged as a world-wide source of largely impartial and very reliable information as well as the producer of much high quality drama and entertainment with a world-wide appeal.  Yet, presumably to facilitate the ingress of the private sector exemplified  by the despised "Fox News" they have cut BBC funding by 30% since 2010 and continue to bully and threaten it with attacks on its income sources and the appointment of top office holders not openly opposed to its ethos.

 High on the list would also come our work to reduce world poverty.  Yet they have merged our very effective Department for International Development with the Foreign Office so that the primacy of  poverty reduction strategies  become subservient to "British Interests."  In addition, they use the excuse of the expense of the pandemic to reduce our overseas aid  budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. To be slashing our aid to such as Libya and Syria at this crucial time must surely be the depth of international shame.

Going back further into our history we once had an admired reputation for welcoming refugees.  These could be Huguenots fleeing persecution in  France or  Jews from  less hospitable lands, who contributed so much to the development of my part of Yorkshire -  outstandingly Marks of M&S and  Montague Burton.  Now we have the odious "Hostile Environment" created by Theresa May and honed and refined by Pritti Patel, and seem happy to stand aside as migrants and their children drown in the Channel.*

To these add our reputation for respect for law trashed by Mr Johnson's willingness to break it and  our reputation for honesty besmirched by his blatant lying.

We are slithering rapidly down the ranks of respected and influential nations.  Rather than competing in the Union Flag competition the opposition parties need urgently to produce plans to "build back better" in the above areas, and inspire  the electorate with them.


* If you want to strike a blow for a more humane approach a group of people in Kent had formed "Channel Rescue" to welcome them with friendly greetings, sandwiches and reflective blankets.

 You can read all about them here.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Democracy being hijacked.

In the United States the Republican Party is on the back foot and they know it.  On the whole their main support is in the rural areas, whereas the the main support of the Democrats is in the larger cities.  This tendency is increasing as young people move from the country to the cities, where enterprising migrants also tend to congregate.  

 For historical reason the US Constitution gives the rural areas a built- in political advantage as each state, regardless of population, is allocated two members of the Senate.  So Wyoming,the smallest state,  with a population of 600 000, elects two Senators, as does the largest,  California, with a population of over 39 million.  This advantage affects the number of "electoral college votes" allocated to each state for the actual election of the president.

So last year, 2020, we saw the Republican Party, and not just Donald Trump, scrambling furiously to reduce the turnout of voters  among people most likely to vote Democrat. 

 Voter registration, for decades made more difficult for people of colour, even after emancipate, continued to be difficult, and for immigrants as well.  The funding of the Post Office was reduced in order to hamper its capacity to deal with postal votes, Trump himself went out of his way , months before the actual election, to claim that vast numbers  of postal votes  would be "fake", and the numbers of polling booths in migrant and "black" areas were reduced so that those who chose to vote in person would be discouraged by long queues.

Weeks after the election Trump and the Republicans were still challenging the result .  

President Biden  has probably only two years to reverse this process becasue it is very likely that in the mid-term elections the Democrats will lose their majority of 1 (the casting vote of the Speaker because the present composition is 50/50) after which further reform will be stymied.

In the UK the Conservatives are taking similar steps as the US Republicans in order to hijack our own democracy.  

Measures have already been introduced to make it more difficult for the young, students, migrants, and  itinerants, all most like to vote for progressive parties, to get on to the registers or to use their vote if they are on it.

Voter registration has largely been made more complex by requiring  each person to register individually rather than by household.  Measures to make it easier for "attainers" - 16 and 17-year-olds who could become old enough to vote during the life of a register,  though approved by the Lords, were rejected by the Commons with its 80 seat Conservative majority.  A requirement to produce evidence of identity at the polling station is about to be introduced - though there is no current evidence of even the slightest significant "personation."  (There used to be in Northern Ireland, where "vote early, vote often" was a popular slogan)

In the recent past hesitant steps have been  taken to make at least some of our elections more democratic.  There are forms of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, and in these nations' local government elections.

In England we have had the luxury of a "supplementary vote" in elections for  Executive Mayors and for Police and Crime Commissioners.  This system provides  that if the person with the most votes does not have more than 50% of the votes cast than all but the top two are eliminated and their "supplementary" or second preferences are transferred and counted so that the person elected has an over-all majority of sorts.

Out of the blue, (sic)  as far as I can see, this system has been withdrawn and we shall be back to "first past the post."  I am bewildered by two things:

  •  First how can the Home Secretary bring about this change by fiat - surely it is a matter for parliament, and better still, only by consent of the people doing the voting:
  •  Second, why has there been so little publicity about it?  Such matters should provoke outrage.  

 "Free and fair elections," though perhaps the most important, are only one ingredient in a well-functioning  democracy.  We are told that the Government is to use its 80+ majority in Parliament (based on only 43.6% of the total vote) to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act, thus giving the prime minister the right to call a general  election when it best suits his party.  

And to cap it all, they plan to reduce the right of  the courts to examine whether or not the government has acted legally - a provision first introduced in Magna Carta in 1215.

The cynical clique temporality in charge of our government is systematically removing the building block of our democracy.  

Where is the outrage?

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Defence - against what?

Among the boasting and bluster of our government's defence review published  yesterday the one piece of concrete information seems to be that we are to increase our stockpile of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260.

Given that the US already has 3 800, and that it is inconceivable that we could use some of ours without the co-operation and permission of the US, who I understand control the the delivery system, it is difficult to see the point of our having  an extra 80.  

Maybe it's to appear to be in the same league as France, which has 300 (and their own delivery system) and China which has 320.  Russia has 4 300

It is also difficult to see why we should go to the trouble of replacing, or even maintaining, the four Vanguard class submarines in which the rockets and warheads are housed, with new ones called Dreadnought class, though this is not as expensive as I'd expected: a mere £31bn  for a lifetime of 35 to 40 years.

 This  looks relatively  modest compared with £37bn for a test and trace system over two yeas which, so far, has had no significant effect of the speed of coronavirus.  (A friend has pointed out in a letter to the Guardian  that this amounts to around £350m a week: an interesting figure to put on the side of a bus).

 Even so there are better things, even militarily, on which £31b could be spent.  I have just finished reading "The Changing of the Guard" by a young(ish) author, Simon Akam.  This is a detailed examination of the performance of the British  Army in Iraq and Afghanistan in the recent operations there.  

 It does not reinforce the fond boast of the "best little army in the world" skilled from its experience in Malaya and Northern Ireland  in counter-insurgency techniques.  "We are not occupiers in helmets and  riot gear, but  your mates in berets with interesting cap badges, here to help you. Above all we are "not the Americans."'

 Rather our forces were under-resourced, ill-equipped,  badly led. and in both spheres eventuality to be rescued by the Americans.

I know, I wasn't there, but Akam's account seems to be based on a willingness to be sympathetic, and thoroughly documented.

So instead of grandstanding to appear to remain in the big league with nuclear weapons we can't use and a swanky aircraft carrier useful mainly for hosting cocktail parties,  let us equip and train our forces properly for the on-the-ground peace keeping and humanitarian operations for which they are likely to be used.

Friday 12 March 2021

Rewardng the medics: France shows the way.

 This informations is taken from a letter in this morning's Guardian from Dominica Jewell of Bazoches-au-Houlem, France

Last  November medial staff were awarded bonus payments of between €1 000 and €1 500 for their work on the pandemic.

They have now been awarded a pay rise of !0%

International staff have been offered, free of charge, French citizenship.

In the UK they got a clap. a pay cut, and, if "international," the Foreign Office's hostile environment.

I am not proud.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Can these figures be true?


When it was nicely under way last year we were told that the "world beating" national Test Trace and Isolate  (TTI) scheme to track and contain coronavirus was costing £12bn ( to be clear, billions, not millions).

 By the end of the year we were told it was costing £22bn.

We now hear that it is to continue  and over a two year period is budgeted to cost £37bn 

In an Email sent out by  The Good Law Project,     Diane Coyle, the Bennett Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge University, criticising  the  (by comparison mere) £4.8b expenditure on upgrading largely Tory areas, claims that £4.8bn is more than enough to give our 670,000 nurses a pay rise of 25% rather than the meagre below inflation 1% offered to them.

 Rather than being "world beating" the TTI  scheme which, rather than making use of established public sector organisations such as the NHS and Local Government Public Health  Services, was largely outsourced to the private sector, is generally regraded as an expensive failure.    A parliamentary committee has now deemed that it has made little effect on the spread of the virus.

Happily the system may now improve slightly as  local government and the  NHS are becoming more involved. 

 By contrast the vaccination programme, the success of which is being milked  by the government for all it's worth, is largely if not entirely entirely run through the NHS.

 I sincerely hope these facts and figures will be full exposed on the front pages as and when the necessary public enquiry is set up 



Thursday 4 March 2021

Sunak's "sticking plaster" budget.


I have long believed that we British make far too much  fuss about the annual budget, as though at the micro level a few extra bob a week per family is going to  transform  our lives into ecstasy and a few less will plunge us into misery and destitution. Nor at the macro level can the direction and efficiency of the economy be changed overnight  by a few deft "touches of the [fiscal] tiller."  

At the level of political perception most budgets are cheered by the party in power and their supporters on the day of delivery, the holes appear on closer inspection a few days later, and within a week the media caravan moves on (Harry and Meghan?) and the whole thing is forgotten.

Presumably with this in mind our PR-smart  government have pre-announced most of the "good things"  (what's happened to "purdah?) so that they'd be firmly in our minds before the errors and omissions become apparent.  So we can welcome the "sticking plaster" measures which will keep the economy going until September.  

Furlough payments for those unable to work becasue of the restrictions continue until September, though they are tapered off  in the final couple of months. The £20 extra for those in receipt of Universal Credit (UC) will also continue until September.  

Since the level of UC without the extra £20 is clearly inadequate it is difficult to see why the addition couldn't be made permanent. The modest cut in VAT for hospitality services is also to continue, though it would have been a good idea to make this universal (as Labour's Alistair Darling did to great effect after the Banking Crisis of 2008).

Personally I welcome the freezing of income tax free allowances: (raising the threshold of paying tax is of most benefit to the wealthy payers of the  the higher rates), and the rise in Corporation Tax back to a more internationally comparable level (25%, but like the Kingdom of Heaven, "not yet") is long overdue.

Sadly there is no mention of a windfall tax on those businesses that have been allowed to operate and therefore thrive  in the pandemic.  Nor any attempt to equalise the business rates on firms which operate by mail order with those paying high rates in town centres.  

Given the urgency of tackling the climate crisis the failure to increase fuel duty  is a startling omission (any higher prices for consumers which might result from  this could be compensated by the VAT cut mentioned above) and the the stamp duty tax break on house purchases up to half a million benefits only those who have (or whose parents have) whilst  pushing up the price of houses for the less fortunate strugglers.

The pandemic has exposed the gross inadequacy of our public services, yet there are no measures to increase public support for them,  not even the much-lauded NHS or the desperate care services.  There is no extra increase in the minimum wage (already announced to be £8.91 from April) which would have been an appropriate way of rewarding the lower paid health and care workers, and deliverers, who are keeping us going, often at great personal risk, during the pandemic.

Local government services continue to be squeezed and most areas will be forced to increase council tax by around 5% in order to provide even the minimum services, so  in spite of denials "austerity" continues. Nor are there any imaginative measures to promote the building of affordable housing, surely one of our most pressing social needs.

Every budget has to have a gimmick. In Sunak's first it was "Eat out to help out" which  cost over half a billion to subside the treats of those who could afford to eat out and helped spread the virus . In this it is a number of "Freeports" to provide products and services tax free with  less regulation, which probably includes fewer health and safety safeguards.   Freeports  have been tried in the past and seem to have largely diverted existing industries to the designated areas rather than created new ones.

There are extra funds to stimulate 45 towns.  Apparently the vast majority of them are in marginally-held Tory constituencies.*  So much for the chancellor's promise of honesty and  "levelling with us."

The "spirit of 1945" is not much in evidence.


*Post Script added 5th May.

Apparently 40 of the 45 are Tory held.  They include Richmond in North Yorkshire, which is in Sunak's own constituency, Wakefield, normally a Labour  bastion but now Tory held, and Morley, which used to be twined with Batley, and of which it was the posher half, and is now part of Morley and Outwood and Tory held.  Batley has the misfortune to be represented by a Labour MP and so receives no perk.  I'm surprised Dewsbury isn't included as that is a struggling area but with a Tory MP.

 The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has demanded that the criteria by which these towns were chosen should be published.

Monday 1 March 2021

The Budget: two suggestions


 Speculation about the contents of Wednesday's budget for once seems to concentrate on its  macroeconomic effect (how to keep the whole economy going) rather then self absorbed introspection as to how the already comfortable will be made even more comfortably off and  the marginalised left much the same or even worse off so as to induce them to try harder

There seems to be general agreement that, although government will have to pay off its debt sometime, "now is not the time."  

The Chancellor seems to agree but offers dark hints that that payback time is in the offing and he and the Tories are the ones to  act "responsibly" rather than spendthrift Labour, who simply cannot be trusted with the newly discovered "magic money tree."

This is a popularly held view and will in the next few days be pushed hard by the right-wing press.

The facts state otherwise.

At the end on the Second World War in 1945 the newly elected Labour government  under Clement Attlee inherited a public debt which was two and a half times the size of Britain's national Income.

 Undeterred by the debt the Attlee government went ahead with massive improvements to the then modest welfare state  and   introduced free secondary education for all, raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15, established the NHS, greatly improved the social security safety network, and much else besides.

This website:

drawn to my attention by a commenter on the previous post, makes interesting reading.

In spite of the huge pubic expenditure involved the Labour government also began tackling the public debt and by 1947, current public finances were brought into into surplus which, by 1950, reached 6.3% of GDP.

So both can be done.

Hence there's absolutely no logical excuse for regarding the present public debt, by comparison a mere 100% of GDP,  as an excuse for further cutting expenditure on our crumbling public services.  

 Rather we need to increase expenditure to make them fit for purpose.

 While personally not seeing any great urgency about bringing down the public debt, if back bench Tories are determined to fabricate a sense of urgency,  I offer them this advice:

When considering the necessary tax rises:

1.    1.Tax “bads” (eg pollution, use of finite resources) rather than “goods” (eg jobs, most consumer t expenditure).

2.    2. Tax those thing which impact least on current production and expenditure.  There’s plenty of choice: taxes on wealth, excess profits, land , financial transactions, capital gains, inheritances . . .


To these we could add a determined effort to force the international giants to pay their fair share towards the maintenance of the societies which enable then to operate, along with a determined attack on tax evasion and tax avoidance.