Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The NIP: how it came to be.

 I am indebted to my friend and fellow Liberal, John Cole of Bradford, for this succinct analysis of how the UK government, apparently in good faith, signed the International Treaty containing the Northern Ireland Protocol.

1. In 2017 Mr Johnson, then a member of Theresa May's government, spoke vehemently against any customs sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

2. In an effort to avoid a sea border Mrs May negotiated a complex “Northern Ireland Backstop”. The Backstop became almost universally hated on the Conservative benches and in consequence:

3..When he became prime minister Johnson re-negotiated with the EU to get rid of the Backstop, but only by replacing it with a customs sea border between Great Britain and Ireland. (see 1 above)

4. The Northern Ireland Protocol (including sea border) was part of the agreement reached with the EU and signed off by both parties.

5. Johnson presented this “oven ready” agreement to the Commons where the Conservatives voted for it - and them went out to win the 2019 general election off the back of it - having “got Brexit done”.

6. Today Unionists in Northern Ireland plus our Conservative government rail against the Protocol and insist that the EU must now sit down and either amend it or scrap it.

7 . I [John Cole] acknowledge that the NIP is causing considerable damage to trade and making life difficult for exporters. But this was known in early 2016 when Sir John Major and Tony Blair jointly issued warnings.

8. These sage warnings were dismissed by Brexiters as part of “Project Fear”. Now their arrogance, wrong-headedness and unwillingness to engage with reality is reaping its comeuppance.

 So there we are: no ifs, no buts, no arguments about the EU being "inflexible" or "over-implementing."  They were told, they knew,  they signed it -  there is no point in their trying to blame someone else.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Security and the Queen's Speech

We British people, along with  those in  most  countries, face three serious threats to our security.  Two are immediate: the possible escalation of the Russia/Ukraine war into a Europe-wide and potentially nuclear conflagration, and a "cost of living" crisis.  The third,  global heating, is more long term but requires immediate action.

The Prime Minister likes to pretend that he is playing a leading role in averting war and is today visiting both Finland and Sweden, presumably to acquaint them of the joys of being members of NATO.  In fact his interventions, along with the bellicose utterances of our Foreign Secretary, are more likely to inflame matters further than lead towards compromises which will at least stop the killing.

 Fortunately, in this context,  Britain's international standing is now so diminished that I doubt if what either of them says or does is likely to make much difference.

There is, however,  a great deal the government can do to help the most vulnerable to avoid the worst effects of the cost of living crisis arising from the explosion in energy prices and the prediction that inflation could reach 10%.  The effects of these are serious and immediate.  Already three quarters of a million of our fellow citizens are experiencing destitution (insufficient means to secure adequate food, warmth and shelter) and a further quarter of a million are expected to join them as the year progresses if there is no meaningful intervention. Their social security is at risk, which is totally unnecessary and complexly avoidable in a country as rich and highly developed as the UK.

In the government's programme announced yesterday (and rather grandly called the Queen's Speech)  the government claims that there are no short term fixes and that the problem must be dealt with by long term growth.  This is half true.  

There is  considerable need (and has been for decades) for us to improve our productivity in order for us to be competitive with other economies.  But we need to define "growth " more carefully.  That which uses non-renewable resources or further pollutes the planet is not the answer (but likely to be on the cards).  Only sustainable growth, if it can be achieved other than by the exploitation of other people's resources, is the long term acceptable solution.

Sustainable or otherwise , the million destitute people need help now, not is in some distant fairyland future.

Here's how that  could be given :

1.  State subsides to all low-to-medium-income households so that they can afford their fuel bills and keep warm.

2.  Increase all social security benefits by at least the anticipated rate of inflation and preferably more.  Re-introducing the £20 per week Universal Credit boost would be a start and could be done immediately)

3.  Abandon the proposed and deflationary increase in national Insurance contributions.

4.  Join Europe''s  Customs Union and Single Market. This would not be a betrayal of the Brexit vote. The Leave Campaign  frequently implied that we should remain in both. Such an act would have the added bonus of solving the Northern Ireland Protocol problem "at a stroke."   If formally rejoining is too much to swallow, then we we could "re-align" to them (which seems to be Jacob Rees Mogg's practice anyway). What we need in the famous Keynesian  "long run" and before we're all dead (which for the destitute million may not be al that long) is an export-led boom, and hampering out exporters by splendid isolation is not the best way of achieving one.

The first three of these proposals will cost a considerable amount of money, and the government will argue that the "public finances" cannot afford it.

That is nonsense.

In spite of the incompetence and missed opportunities of the last half century we are still a very rich country.  If our national income were shared equally between every child, woman and man living in the country, that would produce an  income of over £30 000 per year each. Or £120 000 for every family for four.

Untold affluence.

I'm not suggesting it should be so divided, just using that as an illustration of how rich we are.

So there is plenty of scope for additional taxation (perhaps just to come up to the OECD average).

The aim should be cut the taxes on those things that will lead to deflation  (income of the lower paid, taxes on employment such as NICs, and  expenditure taxes ),  and tax the many things that make least impact on current incomes and expenditure (known in the jargon as the "circular flow")

There's plenty to choose from:

  • a windfall tax on excess profits (especially of the energy companies)
  • a wealth tax: say 1% of all wealth over half a million
  • a land tax
  • an effective inheritance tax
  • a financial transactions tax
  • effective capital gains taxes
  • carbon taxes
  • pollution taxes.
Don't panic: I'm not suggestion we tax all of them - just illustrating the variety available if we had a political party courageous enough to grasp the many golden nettles.


 


Saturday, 30 April 2022

The "Big Calls" right? Score 1 out of 10 (or 1+ if we are generaous).

"Partygate" has gone off the boil in the last few days, replaced in the media by indignation (and salacious fascination) at the misbehavours of several MPs.  However, until this diversion (another "dead cat?") came to their rescue assorted ministers were trundling round the studios  cravenly explaining  that, compared with the "Big Calls" which their super-leader Johnson had "got right," a few parties were  a relatively trivial affair that shouldn't worry us too much.

Here's an examination of the"big calls."

 1.  PPE equipment.  It has been a constant theme by government apologists throughout the pandemic that this is an unprecedented situation which couldn't possibly have been predicted.  In fact it was most definitely both precedented and predicted.  In her vivid account of her career in post-disaster management, When the Dust Settles published earlier this year, Lucy Easthope claims that a pandemic has been top of the list of probable disasters in the UK for years.  More particularly Exercise Cygnus of 2016 examined how to deal with a pandemic, and made detailed recommendation to "be prepared."  Most were ignored, in particular the requirement to keep adequate stocks of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) . These were allowed to run down and NHS staff were consequently required to put their own health and even lives in danger without adequate protection.

2.  PPE Procurement.   Last minute efforts to secure PPE ignored routine procedures and were directed to private companies which  often had no experience of manufacturing or providing such equipment.  Personal connections with Tory MPs and party members secured access to a VIP line and billions of £s of public money were wasted. (A billion is an awful lot)*

3.   Insouciant beginning.  The government failed for too long to take the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. Prime Minister  Johnson led the field in this.  He attended a crowded rugby match with his then girlfriend and  openly boasted of continuing to shake hands with hospital staff when such physical contact was discouraged. The "Glorious Goodwood " race meeting was allowed to go ahead. This attempt to shrug off the pandemic with casual lack of concern set totally the wrong tone for dealing with it.

4.  Discharge of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes. With typical boastfulness the govenmt claimed that care homes were "ring fenced" against infection.  This has turned out to be completely untrue and the High Court has now decreed the procedure that was followed to have been "unlawful."  The Health Minster at the time, Matt Hancock, has already been forced to resign  for cuddling one of his assistants when the rest of us were officially limited to elbow bumps for physical intimacy.  Maybe he'll now be prosecuted.

 5.  The Test and Trace System.  This was announced, again boastfully, as being "World Beating" and was to involve an (as yet not invented) App. It was farmed out to the private sector, was an abject failure and cost an astonishing £37bn.  Hired operatives spent days sitting by their computers doing nothing.  The existing expertise of the Local Government Public Health Authorities and the NHS's Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinics (surely the most experienced people in the country at tracing contacts in delicate situations) were ignored.

 I find the cost difficult to credit. ( Again, a billion is an awful lot). For comparison, a few days ago, say after five weeks of war, the total cost of repairing the damage to  Ukraine's buildings and infrastructure was estimated as being in the region of £47bn. .  What on earth did we spend £37bn on?

6.The Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS).   This was a scheme to enable established businesses forced to close or reduce their activities during the pandemic to enable them to "bounce back" once the emergency was over.  A total of £47bn was distributed, much of it  apparently without adequate checks.  Some applicants were not even trading before the pandemic started, some never did, and there were multiple  applications  from the same addresses.  A total of £4.96bn has now been written off as "fraud" and a further £5.7bn lost as the loans were given to firms that collapsed anyway.  (To repeat, again, a billion is an awful lot.)

 7.  The Furlough Scheme.  This was not a complete failure, but far from the brilliant initiative it is claimed to have been.  The German and French schemes were arguably more generous, more flexible and lasted longer.  A further £5.7bn was lost through fraud in the UK scheme. (I have seen not figures for the German and French schemes, but I'm sure there would have been fraud there too.)

8.  Delays.  There were countless  delays in imposting lockdowns: at the beginning, for a "half term fire-break," before Christmas with only two days notice, to name but some.  The government can also be accused of lifting restrictions prematurely and recklessly.

9.  Control of our borders.Our "success" in terms of deaths per million population, compared with similar larger and more developed European countries is measured as follows.(as at 24th April 2022)

 Italy:          2 748

UK:             2 558

France:       2 362

Spain:         2 203 

Germany:   1 617 

Nothing much to shout about there.  In fact, given that we are an island, and with the much-lauded "control of our borders" which the Brexit victory allegedly achieved, we should expect a much lower rate of fatalities than our neighbours with land borders, some of them very lengthy.

10. The Vaccine Distribution. This is the great and uncontested feather in the government's cap.  We were, indeed, the first country to start distributing a viable vaccine. (I dislike the term "roll-out" - meant to sound modern and "sexy" but seems to me more properly to be something you do with barrels, and then "have a barrel of fun.") Other countries have now caught up and some have now achieved greater coverage.  it's also worth noting that we weren't the first to create and manufacture a viable vaccine: that was Germany (and by two descendents of  the much-scorned Turkish guest-workers to boot).  

 It's also questionable how much the vaccine success was due to the government and how much to brilliant scientists at Oxford University and the Anglo Swedish ( think - their websites seem reluctant to say where they are based - or maybe it's my poor research skills) AstraZeneca  Company.  It is also notable that the distribution was organised, not by the private sector,  as with the Test and Trace Scheme,  but by the NHS.

The frequently repeated government claim that we were  able to be quick off the mark with the vaccine becasue of Brexit is completely false.  There is nothing in EU rules or regulations which would have prevented our  doing exactly what we did if we had remained in the EU.

So, Prime Minister Johnson's total mark for the "big calls" is one out of ten, or one and a half if we give him the benefit of some doubt on the operation of the furlough scheme.


* PS Just to drive the point home, it takes over 31.5 YEARS for a billion seconds to pass.  A million seconds pass in just over eleven and a half days.  So the cost of £333.000 worth of weaponry which Mr Johnson is offering the Ukrainians today (3rd May, in a Churchill tribute act presumably timed to influence Thursday's  local elections, is financial peanuts compared with the wastage and losses detailed above.)

 

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

The Sub-Postmaster Scandal

 Those who boast that British justice is "the best in the world " and " the envy of the world" and that British enterprise still believes in "fair play" should watch last night's Panorama programme on the sub-postmaster scandal.  I'm told that  present-day Panorama investigative journalism and reporting is but a shadow of its former self, but I found this programme both horrifying and convincing.

Briefly, in the period 2000 to 2014 (that's fourteen years - FOURTEEN YEARS)  a total of 736 sub- postmasters and mistresses were prosecuted for theft, embezzlement or fraud.  Some went to prison (though they were told by the Post Office that they could avoid prison if they admitted to "false accounting,")  Others were fined. 

All were disgraced.  Lots put their own money into the "system"  to avoid prosecution, some selling their houses , even going bankrupt, to finance this. Family lives were disrupted, marriages broken. At least one committed suicide.

The fault, it turns out, was not fraudulent behaviour by the sub-postmasters, but a glitch in the computer system "Horizon," which the Post Office forced them to use.

Two things from the programme stand out to me.

First, when sub-postmasters protested their innocence and said there must be a fault in the system, they were often told by Post Office  officials that they were "the only ones."  Given that there were over 700 prosecutions,  why the the sub-postmasters' union, or similar, did not spot how widespread the accusations were I don't know.  

 What, however, is obvious is that the Post Office officials who  passed on this false information must have known they were lying. Are  they paying the price, with tags round their ankles and spending their days clearing graffiti off the walls, or maybe clearing rubbish from our beaches?  Or are they still in comfortable well-paid jobs?

If the analogy that "fish rot from the head" is valid, them much of the responsibility must lie with the CEO of the Post Office, M/s Paula Vennells, who persisted in pursuing the prosecutions long after it was obvious that the fault lay  "somewhere in the system,"  probably the "Horizon" IT system.  Yet rather than being prosecuted herself, or voluntarily retiring to a nunnery,  she accepted  a CBE and moved into another plum job as Chair of an NHS trust.

We like to tell ourselves that in England  (this precedes the formation of the UK) the "little man" has been protected against the powers of the mighty ever since  Magna Carta was sealed  in 1215.  

We clearly need to take  a long hard look at the might of corporate power in our country, which appears to be as indifferent to justice and fair play as the the mighty in Downing Street.

Saturday, 16 April 2022

Johnson's luck, or media manipulation?

 As a benchmark I like to speculate on what our media and MPs might be saying if any left-of-centre leader, say Jeremy Corbyn,  had committed even a fraction of the outrages that Prime Minister Johnson has so far survived.

In summary, his present misdemeanours are twofold.  He has 

!. broken, possibly  repeatedly, the  lockdown  laws he personally caused to be enacted, and earnestly urged us all follow for the sake of the NHS and our fellows, especially the more vulnerable among us , and

2.  repeatedly lied about it to parliament, claiming: 

first   

     a) there were no parties;

then

    b) if there were "work gatherings" all guidance was followed all the time;

then

    c)  he was personally both surprised and outraged to discover that it hadn't always been;

then

    d)  if he went to a party he didn't realise it was a party and he was not there for long.

The last excuse sounds a bit like a burglar admitting he broke into the house,  but he didn't pinch much. 

To put some of this into context here are just two instances from my lifetime.

In 1953 a 20 year old mentally retarded* lad called Derek Bentley was hanged just for being there when his companion shot and killed somebody.  You can't get hanged any more, but you can be be fined or sent to prison under a rule called "joint enterprise" if you happen to be present when a  crime is committed.

Ten years later, in 1963 a Tory Cabinet Minister, John Profumo,was found to have used the services of a prostitute who also serviced an Russian who was allegedly a spy.  Profumo initially lied to parliament about it but then "did the decent thing." and resigned.     At the time the lying to parliament was regarded as a more serious matter than the use of the prostitute's favours.  I think Mr Profumo rehabilitated his personal reputation by spending the rest of his life doing useful charity work.

The time-scale of events following the revelations  about "partygate" are interesting.

First the Metropolitan Police said they wouldn't investigate the allegations of law breaking in Downing Street as they did not investigate historical crimes.  (Presumably we were expected to believe they only investigate crimes  at the planning stage.)

Instead a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, was to carry out an internal investigation.

M/s Gray's report was just about to be published what the Metropolitan Police changed their mind and decided to investigate the allegations after all.

This gave Mr Johnson the opportunity  to say, repeatedly, that he would answer any questions in full about the affair at a later date, but it wouldn't be appropriate to comment while a police  investigation was under way.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine then gave and still gives Mr Johnson the opportunity to tour Europe claiming to be "leading the West" in organising support for Ukraine.

It was revealed that  the Metropolitan Police investigation had found several people, inducing the Prime Minister, guilty of breaking the laws they had made, and fined them, but it just so happened that parliament was (and still is) in recess for the Easter Holidays.

Minister after minister is parading  around the news studios claiming that we couldn't possibly change prime minister in the middle of a war (despite the fact that that is something we often do, even in wars in which British soldiers are actively fighting,) and, in any case it was all two years ago.  (Let any other criminal try that one on Their Worships or His Lordship).

The Home Office has been considering sending asylum seekers to Rwanda  for some time, but has revealed the decision this week.  (Former advisor  Dominic Cummings had a technique based on the idea that if you throw a dead cat on to a dinner table you change the topic of conversation.)

If the Metropolitan Police finish their investigations then M/s Gray's report could be published, but, since the local elections are due on the 6th May, the doctrine of "purdah" means that no important political initiative, (which, curiously, incudes his report),  can be published while campaigning continues.

 To what extend these fortunate causes of delay are just coincidental  and which are the result of clever media manipulation remains for historian to discover.

 In the meantime the polls show that the electorate are giving Mr Johnson more slack than many of us think he deserves.

 

* That was the phrase used at the time.  We should now say "with learning difficulties."

Saturday, 9 April 2022

Mrs Sunak's taxes

The American justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. defined taxes as "the price we pay for civilisation."  In that sense I am all in favour of them and think they should be sufficient to enable everyone in an economy to enjoy a secure, decent, and, yes, "civilised,", quality of life.  

I regret the use of the term "burden" in relation to taxes. Ideally citizens  should regard paying taxes as a "privilege."  (Many people in my parents' generation were quite chuffed when their earnings rose high enough for them to pay income taxes.) If "privilege" is a stretch too far,  then we could at least use a more neutral term such as the tax "take." 

 That said  I should not expect anyone  except the most saintly to seek out the opportunity to pay pay tax more than once on the same source of income.  But that surely is what we would be requiring people do if they earn income on one country but live in another and pay taxes in both.

 In the textbooks incomes are the reward for labour (wages), ownership or use  of capital (interest), entrepreneurship or risk taking (profits)  or rent resulting from  the possession of a scarce factor that cannot be competed away (normally land but can be a rare skill such as a voice like Pavarotti or the football-feet of David Beckham)

In a well-organised world taxes would be collected only in the economy in which the Income is earned,or, if not eared, then generated..  If Rishi Sunak's wife, Akshata Murty, "earns" vast sums through her holdings in he father's Indian IT company, has paid Indian tax on them and the "earnings" remain in India, then I can see no reason why she should pay British tax on the on top of that, even if her husband is our Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If however, M/s Murty has taken steps to pretend that this vast income is generated in some low tax haven, that is another matter. But I have not heard or read anywhere that this is the case.

 If any tax has been "avoided" India has still one of the largest measures of poverty in the world and their government needs it more than the relatively bloated British (see previous post.)

Rather than perpetuate the fanciful "non-dom " status,  the sensible way froward is for the world's financial authorities to get together and ensure that all income, however generated, is taxed in the country in which it is "earned.".

I recognise that this is not as simple as it could be.  Rich asset-holders employ skilled accountants to devise ways in which income generated in one economy can appear to have been earned in another.  It is quite  difficult to disguise where wages are earned and income from land (including  mineral rights) and physical capital are generated.

But it is possible to claim that the profits, the results of the daring skills of the risk-taking entrepreneur, are generated in some obscure tax haven where the company is registered.  

The UK, to our shame, is the titular "owner" of many, possibly most, of these havens.

 It would be a nice irony if Mr Sunak were the Chancellor of the Exchequer who took the first steps in sorting out this abuse, which deprives the poorest of the world of billions      ( of $s, €s, £s, yen or what you will.)


Friday, 1 April 2022

Keeping us secure

 As far as I know keeping its citizens secure, protecting us from threats, is universally regarded as the first duty of any government.  Most governments seem very enthusiastic about protecting us from external threats,, particularly attacks from other countries.  so throughout history governments have been happy to raise taxes and spend them on the latest weaponry and the necessary forces to operate them.  I suspect that, as a result of the current confrontation between Russia and Ukraine we shall have further calls for greater expenditure  on our armed forces and their equipment.

Governments are more mixed in their devotion to protecting us and our property from internal threats.  They are keen to pass laws to protect our property and persons from battery and robbery, with severe penalties to enforce them.  i understand that in this country the penalties for assaults our private property are greater than the penalties for assaults against our persons.  However,  although wiling to pass draconian laws and punishments for  infringements, governments in this country are less wiling to spend money on constructive measures to prevent criminal behaviour (plenty of decent jobs, more community policemen - Birstall used to have nine, plus a sergeant,- a well-resourced probation service) and to house decently and try to rehabilitate those it deems necessary to incarcerate.  The Nordic counties are though to be good at this.

In a third area governments are expected to protect us from destitution.  I this country this has always been very skimpily done.  Until the 17th Century it was left to the charities, which meant, essentially the church.  After the dissolution of the monasteries  the church became less effective and, somewhat craftily               Elizabeth I's government devolved both the responsibility for operating it and raising the money to pay for it to the Parishes the local government of the time. This Poor Law was introduced in 1601.


I think the first reasonably comprehensive national system of social security was introduced by Bismark in Germany in the late 19th century.  The UK's Liberal government followed suit with Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1919 (which the Tories furiously opposed) and the post -1945 Labour government expanded and improved on this to create a comprehensively secure state in which non-one's quality of life need be hampered by ignorance, squalor,  idleness,  untreated sickness or want.

The basic essentials of this social security must surety be shelter, warmth and food.  Sadly Britain's system has deteriorated to such and extent that these are now far from guaranteed.

From Lloyd George's budget onwards a pension for retired people has been an essential part of the mix.  By coincidence I received this week an estimate of my state retirement pension for the coming year.  It is to increase by by £5.96 per week  from £164.42 per week to £167.38 per week.  Both figures include an additional 25p per week extra "age allowance" becasue i am over 80.

I emphasise "per week.  Members of the House of Lords, by the way, receive £323 per day (that's per day) just for turning up and signing the register.


I quote the exact figures for my retirement pension, not to attract sympathy becasue i don't need it.  i also receive my teacher's pension and, with the two together I live very comfortably indeed.

However, many people for various reasons do not have an additional occupational pensions, but must try to live on the state pension alone


Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Sunak's damp squib

 As per my comments at this time last year I continue to believe  that we British make far too much fuss about the annual budget (though we are told this isn't one, but just a Spring Statement.) In spite of the horrors of the war in Ukraine this year's "event" has received lots of discussion and publicity before it and will doubtless have generated a lot of comment in tomorrow's papers.

This year, for once, there was an opportunity to relieve the really serous distress on the horizon for a large part of our population, and Mr Sunak has not taken it.

Let us be clear: neither the country as a whole nor the economy as a whole, are suffering, or about to suffer, a crisis.  The people who are are the entire Ukrainian population, the members, largely young conscripts, of the Russian armed forces, the Uyghurs in China, the people of war-torn Libya, Syria, Ethiopia and Yemen, the starving in Afghanistan and the residents of Hong Kong and  the Jilin province of China where the COVID pandemic is spreading rapidly.

We do, however face a considerable rise in energy prices.  For the country and economy as a whole this is, compared with the above, a minor inconvenience.  But for about 20% of our population it will, when the price rise kicks in, mean being  unable to afford to heat their homes.  A uncomfortable  winter awaits for many families, who will be driven into serious misery and debt.

There is no need for this.

The UK, in spite of its problems, remains one of the richest economies in the world.  This Word Bank  site shows that if our Gross National Income were divided equally between every child, woman and man in the country, each individual would receive  $US45 870 a year, equivalent to £34 750 at the current rate of exchange.

That would make an income of a whopping £139 000 a year for the average family of four .

Of course, the national income is not equally divided and I'm not suggesting it should be.  Differentials reward different skills, unique gifts, extra effort and imaginative enterprise. Personally I tend to think that a ratio of 1:10 between the lowest and highest paid should be sufficient to recognise these criteria, but that is a discussion for another post

Most of us do not, of course , receive all our income: the government takes a chunk of it in tax, for most of us before we get it, and another chunk when we spend it.

The proportion taken by the government  in the UK is all together about 33%, below the G7 average of 36% which the governments of other developed countries take.

So, were we to move towards the G7 average, or even exceed it, (our current government likes to be "world -beating,") there would be plenty of money for the government to do its duty: namely:

  • protect poorer families from the rising energy prices by grants, not loans;
  • increase all social security payments by, say,  the anticipated rate of inflation (currently 8% instead of 3%);
  • restore the £20 Universal Credit uplift;
  • bring the NHS provision up to scratch;
  • finance social care;
  • prepare for climate change;
  • restore local government services to at leat their pre-2010 levels;
  • level up.

The manner in which this extra tax is collected  should be such as to do least damage to sustainable growth.  In other words  to tax those things which impact least on  current incomes, and to concentrate on taxing "bads" (eg pollution,) rather  than "goods (eg employment.)

 There is an eclectic mixture from which to choose: land, unearned wealth accumulation through such things a rising house prices, a wealth tax, a windfall tax on companies that have made excess profits during the COVID crisis and will make them during  the energy crisis; incomes greater that 10 time the minimum wage, and counting . . .

Instead, what have we got?

  • a rise in the threshold for paying NICs (which benefits higher earners more than lower earners, and doesn't benefit non-earners at all.  and in any case, it's a "bad" tax because it's a tax on employment, which is a "good"):
  • 5p of fuel duty, which should have been retained if not increased because fossil fuels are  a "bad", a source of global heating, pollution, and are non-renewable;
  • a promise of an income tax cut in two years, which helps the rich who don't need it more than the poor who do.
It doesn't even amount to tinkering at the edges.



Friday, 11 March 2022

Ukarine two + weeks on

 The war in Ukraine has now lasted more than twice as long as most pundits predicted.  Inevitably the "fog of war" has descended and it is difficult to discern any actual facts  from the many claims and counterclaims.  What is sadly indisputable  is that hundreds if not thousands of largely young soldiers, plus many  civilians, some of them children, have already been killed, others maimed, and thousands of families have fled their homes to seek asylum elsewhere.  The only pleasing fact in this scenario is that the Ukrainian railways offer free travel to the refugees.  I wonder if, in similar circumstances  that would happen here.

Nothing I've read or heard causes me to change the views expressed in the two previous posts: that we have brought this on ourselves by failing to respect Russia's legitimate "pride" and prematurelyalmost gloatingly, offering NATO and EU membership to Russia's former satellite states.  

There are indeed those who claim that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a "secret treaty," Russia agreed to withdraw Soviet  tanks from East Germany on condition that NATO did not move into the former Soviet "sphere of influence."  Others deny this.    My own view is that if such a deal was not made it should have been.

 Be that as it may, now is the time for the diplomats to get round a table and find a compromise which will save face on both sides.  We are told that Russia has made an offer: that the invaders will withdraw  if Ukraine agrees not to join NATO, and cedes the Crimea and the Donbas to Russia. 

The Ukrainian government, naturally, declares this to be totally unacceptable.

Maybe, but it is at least a starting point for discussion, and that is what diplomats are for and how international disputes should be resolved in our 21st century.  

Or have we learned nothing from the horrors of the 20th?

The "West's" reaction to the Russian proposal supports that of the Ukrainian  government:  it is unacceptable to expect a sovereign (how damaging that word has come to be) state to accept such a condition.

But once upon a time, and not all that long ago,  there was a sovereign state called Cuba with a leader if not exactly democratically elected, at least appointed with popular acclaim.  That sovereign state decided that it would happily offer itself as a base for Soviet missiles  to point at the US, rather as the sovereign UK had and continues to offer itself as a base for US missiles pointing at Russia.

But what was sauce for the goose was not sauce for the gander, sovereign Cuba was firmly told that such a deal was not acceptable, and the face saving solution was that the Soviet  ships carrying the missiles would turn round on condition that the US  removed  its missiles pointing at Russia from Turkey.

I find it painfully tragic that young Russian soldiers and young Ukrainian soldiers should be required to shoot at, maim and kill each other, and families  flee their homes, becasue  the adults in charge of their countries can't get together and hammer out a civilised solution.

Saturday, 26 February 2022

Ukraine: UK compromised.

 Two days before the Russians actually invaded Ukraine Prime Minister Johnson was on the airwaves and warned, not once, but twice, that if President Putin ordered such an invasion he would be "breaking international law."  It seems he doesn't do irony.

A report in the Guardian gives details of contributions madeby Russians  (or ex-Russian - some have taken British citizenship) have  to  the Tory party.

Here are three details:

Mr Luboy Chernukhin:    £700 000

Mr Alexander Temerko:  £357 000

Mr Mohamed Amersi:    £258 000

These and other donors claim that they have no influence whatsoever over Tory party or UK government policy.  Quite so.*

The  function of London (Londongrad) as a centre for money laundering  also adds considerably to the British balance of payments and makes life easier for any government.

I suspect that Mr Johnson has quite enjoyed his few days of strutting around on the world stage and making grave pronouncements.  There has, however,  been little evidence of anyone phoning him (or our Foreign Secretary) rather than vice versa.  

To be fair no other Western politician seems to have had much effect on Russia's actions either, but it is clear that Britain, outside the EU and with a proven liar and unreliable partner as a prime minister, we have been sidelined.  In contrast  both President Macron and the German Chancellor Scholz deserve decent marks for trying.  The key decisions, if any , will be made by President Biden and he is hamstrung by an unhelpful congress.

One thing Mr Johnson has said is valid: that President Putin cannot be allowed to succeed.

He won't, but there is not much in the short run that "The West" can do to bring this about, though we must try with effective sanctions, including those which make our own lives less comfortable.

In the longer run Mr Putin, or his successors, will be defeated by circumstances.  We are all aware of the attempts since the Second World War by powerful nations to impose their will on weaker ones.  They have all failed.

Korea: well, I suppose that could be counted as a "score draw": the North still under the dictatorial (communist?) heel, the South a flourishing capitalist (democratic?) society.

Vietnam

Afghanistan (twice, the Russians first, then the US et al.)

Iraq.

It is incredibly sad that hundreds if not thousands of young Russians and Ukrainians  will die or be maimed  before the present failure becomes apparent.  And families of refugees may run into millions.

One hope is that the Russian people themselves will come to recognise Putin's folly, overthrow him and return to rational normality.

When that happens Russia should be offered respect (see previous post.)

*  Much is made of the West's "freedom."  How "free" are we  to make rational political decisions when one party has access to shedloads of money on this scale to be used  to measure and influence public opinion, and the rest of us rely  on peanuts?  Contributions to political parties should be limited  to a realistic amount per adult per year (£100?) supplemented by state funding.


Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Russia, Ukraine and the UK

 Those who want more fully to understand what is going on in the Russia/Ukraine dispute could do worse than listen to this excellent  "podcast,"

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox?projector=1 

 but should take a deep breath first and be prepared to emerge mentally exhausted.

My sincere hope is that a diplomatic solution will be found (see earlier post) and that not a singe young Ukrainian  nor a singe young Russian sheds his or her blood to satisfy the egos of  posturing politicians.

It is encouraging to see that, on the surface at least, the search for a diplomatic solution is coming from the Europeans, last week from President Macron of France and today Chancellor Scholz of Germany.  Publicly US President Biden is making a more aggressive stance  which is being vigorously supported  by Prime Minister Johnson cheered on by his uncompromising Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, whilst our Defence Secretary Ben Wallace  tries to smear  the Europeans' diplomatic initiatives with " a whiff of Munich."

Mr Johnson, in public interviews, claims to be concentrating on "coordinating the Western response" and therefore hasn't the time at present to answer questions on the Downing Street parties (or even whether he has yet filled in his form). Clearly for him the crisis is a godsend to to give him an excuse for some  international grandstanding which may distract  attention from his domestic shambles.

Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, I think it will be noted as a clear illustration that, having left the EU, Britain's influence on world affairs has greatly diminished.  It is fairly certain that, whatever President Biden decides to do, Britain will follow like a tame lapdog.  How much better to be at the heart of the European diplomatic initiatives along with the French and the Germans.

President Biden has eight years of diplomatic experience in high office.  There is every reason to hope that, behind his strong words, he too is seeking a diplomatic solution,( as J F Kennedy did in the Cuban Crisis, by agreeing to withdraw nuclear missile based in Turkey and pointing  at Moscow, if Khrushchev  turned away  from installing Soviet missiles in Cuba.)

However, as we discovered with Prime Minster Anthony Eden's ill-fated  invasion of Suez in 1956, years of experience as No 2 does not guarantee  balanced decisions when in the top job.

 Fingers crossed.

Monday, 7 February 2022

What does No 10 actually do?

There's an episode of "Yes Prime Minister" in which the PM's  principal private secretary, Bernard, explains to Jim Hacker that prime ministers don't  actually do much.  I think it's the one in which Hacker is suffering from jet lag and keeps falling asleep after his successful (ie well covered by the media) visit to the US President.  Hacker is anxious that, after his few days' absence, there must be a huge backlog of work for him to catch up on.  

Bernard carefully enumerates:

Chairing the Cabinet: two hours a week

Prime Minister's questions: 2 x half an hour a week (as it was in those days)

Reporting to the Queen: half an hour a week

plus one or two other things;

 amounting in all to, say, about seven hours a week  (These figures are from memory and may not be strictly accurate, but give the general idea.)

So what does the prime-minister actually do (rather than "be" which is what the present incumbent seems most interested in)?

The Cabinet Office itself was not created until 1916.  Until then, when "Wellington thrashed Bonaparte" and "Britain really ruled the Waves"* and the UK established its world-wide empire, we got along without one.  Today it employs, according to Google, 8 000 staff.  Not all of them work in Downing street but, wherever they're based, what do they actually do?

The Prime Minister's Office is currently part of this Cabinet Office.  I haven't been able to find out how many people are employed in it, but Google points out that the invitation to the BYO "work event" in the Downing Street garden was sent to about 100 people.

Now, as part of the proposed "reforms", the No 10 operation is to become a separate government department  with its own Permanent Secretary.  These are normally paid £208,000+a year with a knighthood thrown in towards the end.

There is a clear and obvious need for lots of highly competent, and therefore decently paid,  civil servants to staff the departments of state that actually do something:  the Treasury, Home Office, the Departments of Health, Education, etc.  There is, as was recognised in 1916 for the more successful prosecution of the war, some need for co-ordination.  Whether this really needs 8 000 people should be questioned.

Technically, and in my view ideally, the prime minister is "first among equals."  He  will need "eyes and ears" to help him in his responsibility for co-ordination, promotions and demotions,  and deciding on priorities.

 And in the presentation and defence of government policy.  According to Michael Cockerell in "Unmasking our Leaders" (Biteback Publishing, 2021, pages 252/3) Gordon Brown "spent much of Monday, much of Tuesday and all of Wednesday morning prepping" for Prime Minister's Questions.  But, then, he was a perfectionist.

The present occupant seems mainly concerned with publicity.  There is a clear need for co-ordination of the programme here, and for a props and costumes department to provide the necessary supply of hard hats, high-viz jackets and  and medical-looking  outerwear.

That this should now be thought to require an entirely new government department demonstrates that the  government of the UK is now more a matter of showmanship than serious policies.

 

*  Gilbert and Sullivan, "Iolanthe."