Saturday 29 October 2022

The Pity of War in Ukraine (or anythere else)

 Last Thursday's Melvin Bragg programme "In our Time" on Radio 4 discussed the First World War poet Wilfred Owen.  You can listen to it at*

It is very interesting: among other things I learnt that Owen  was not just a gifted poet, but also a good soldier - a crack shot ( still called musketry in those days.)

The discussion referred to his poem "Disabled" with which I was not familiar.  Here it is.


He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

                            *        *        *        *        *

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

                            *        *        *        *        *

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He's lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

                            *        *        *        *        *

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts.
That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

                            *        *        *        *        *

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

                            *        *        *        *        *

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?
The above, or something like it, is happening today in Ukraine, and to civilians as well as young Russians and young Ukrainians, and probably girls as well as boys these days.

We can only hope that, as well as a belligerent West urging on the Ukrainians to continue their war on our behalf, somebody somewhere (Turkey perhaps) is seeking to broker some form of cease-fire that will save face on both sides.

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" was an "old lie" a hundred years ago, and it still is.
 *Sorry I can't highlight the link.  The line of symbols that enables me to preform such tricks - and also how to put things in italics - has disappeared and I have no idea how to get it back.)

Tuesday 25 October 2022


 1.  Rishi Sunak "kisses hands" with King Charles (a first for both) this morning and Sunak becomes Prime Minister. I think he doesn't actually kiss.

2.  It speaks well for the UK that we have a prime minister of South Asian heritage.  I think one of his parents was a Kenyan Asian.  As far as I can remember the only party to welcome the Kenyan Asians was the Liberals.  Both the Conservative and Labour parties tried to wriggle out of any commitment to take them in.  He owes us.

 3.   It also speaks well of the UK that we have a practising Hindu for a prime Minister, and it's rather nice that it happened on their feast of Diwali (Light). He'll still appoint the Bishops of the Church of England, though.  It's interesting that we've never yet had a Roman Catholic PM. (Tony Blair "converted" after he'd resigned as PM.)

4.  He's very personable, the sort of chap Tory selection committee members would rather like for a son-in law when they're selecting a parliamentary candidate.

5. He is not, however,  a man of principle.  His predecessor as Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid walked out rather than submit to Prime Minster Johnson's demand that he sack his own advisors and use Downing Street's.  It would have been nice if the entire top echelons of the Tory party had united against Johnson's concentration of power in No 10, but Sunak had no such scruples.

6. Nor is he very moral .  He openly boasted to the Tories of Tunbridge Wells (where better?) that he had diverted  funds meant for depressed areas to affluent towns such as their.  There's no getting away from this: you can watch the video if you google "Sunak Boasting." One of the beneficiaries of this immoral if not illegal diversion was his own constituency, Richmond, one of the poshest bits of Yorkshire.

7. Some of the newspapers are making a great fuss about his being "unelected."  This does not worry me.  As argued in the previous post, we are a parliamentary democracy and it is up to MPs to decide who can command a majority.  A plebiscite among Tory party members with Johnson on the ballot could have led to an even greater disaster.

8.  Nor am I all that sympathetic to calls for a general election, which are pretty predictable and make the opposition parties sound robotic if not pathetic.  I believe in fixed term parliaments. One of the most effective parliaments was that before 2019.  It failed to find  a solution that would produce a Brexit beneficial to the UK, because there is no such thing, as we are painfully finding out.

9.  Most of the debate and comment from Conservatives over the weekend has centred around finding a leader who could unite the party.  That was the theme of Sunak's first speech to the party.  What should have been the primary objective, finding someone with policies good for the country, was secondary to keeping their hands on power.

10.  Sunak is seen as a "safe pair of hands" but his decisions as Chancellor were pretty feeble. He pandered to the comfortable with his silly "eat out to help out" scheme,  chose to increase the tax on a "good", (employment,) rather than a "bad" (river pollution perhaps) to pay for the care system, and took a hard hearted swipe at the poor by discontinuing the £20 uplift to universal credit.

11.  He also voted (and I presume campaigned) for Brexit, so is clearly susceptible to fraudulent promises and fantasy economics, if not quite to the extent that M/s Truss is.

12. Most seriously his promise to be "responsible" about the public finances means that we are to be locked into yet another round  of the discredited Cameron/Osborne austerity of the 2010-15 government.   There is no slack, in the NHS nor anywhere else, there are no non-damaging savings, our public services are threadbare.  They need increased  expenditure, and cannot sustain cuts.  However, the market turmoil following  the Truss recklessness means that the Tories have another fake excuse to disguise further cuts as necessary and responsible.

 This is not true.  

As distinguished economist Chris Grey writes:

 That reaction [of the markets] was to the fact that Truss and Kwarteng’s plan was based on the total nonsense that reducing taxes would deliver growth and make government debt sustainable. It doesn’t mean that borrowing to fund public spending in ways that would plausibly promote growth would meet the same fate. Such spending would include infrastructure projects, environmentally sustainable and energy-saving projects, and significantly enhanced education spending. (My emphasis)

Friday 21 October 2022


 M/s Truss's premiership is over - or, at least, it will be in a week.

Her resignation after barely six weeks "in office but not in power" raises both major and minor questions.  To deal with minor ones first:

1.  Will she be entitled to submit a list of resignation honours?  I believe both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown passed over this little perk, but subsequent Tory premiers (Cameron, May, and Johnson) have re-introduced it.  (Yet another step back after Labour have taken a step forward. An earlier  example is that Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan stopped granting  hereditary honours but Margaret  Thatcher re-introduced them: an Earldom for Harold Macmillan and a Baronetcy - hereditary knighthood - for her husband Dennis, probably so that it could be passed on to their son Mark on whom she allegedly doted)  

It's also interesting to speculate what will happen to Johnson's resignation honours if he makes a comeback. Will they be put on hold or will he get two bites of the cherry?.

There may be a case for some sort of national honours, on the same level that universities award honorary doctorates and golf clubs have honorary captains,  but these should surely not involve a seat  for life in the legislature.  And prime minsters who serve only a limited period, or are ousted in disgrace, or both, should not be allowed to submit their list.

 2.  Ditto for the £115 000 per year allocated, post  Margaret  Thatcher, to ex-prime ministers, for "office expenses," apparently for life.  Multimillionaire socialist Sir Tony Blair claims the full whack,  Tory Mrs May about half of it.

3.  Neo-liberalism, trickle down effects  and other synonyms for  cosseting  the rich on the pretence that it benefits the poor becasue the advantages "trickle down" should henceforth be labelled TRUSSONOMICS just to remind the credulous that it has been tried in spades and ended in disarray.

On to the more serious lessons to be learned. I think we need to take a long hard look at the current method all the major parties use to select their leaders.

First a little history.  I am  not been impressed by all the indignant huffing and puffing about "our new prime minister" being imposed on us by only the 180 000 or so Tory party members, the mere 0.3% of the population.  

It's not all that long ago that, when the Tories were in power, new prime-misters were imposed not by umpteen thousand Tory party members, but just three.  These were "men in grey suits."  Always men, we didn't necessarily know who they were (though I think Lord Salisbury usually featured).  One "consulted" the Tory MPs,  a second the Peers taking the Tory Whip and the third the party chairmen (presumed to be always men) in the constituencies.  They then got together  (in a cigar-smoke-filled room?) and decided on the winner.  That  is how Harold Macmillan "emerged" rather than R A Butler after  Anthony Eden resigned in 1957, and how Lord Home "emerged" rather than either Butler or Quentin Hogg when Macmillan himself resigned in1963  becasue he thought he was  more poorly than he actually was.

Until then both the Labour and Liberal parties left it to their MPs to select a leader.  We Liberals had "elections" even when there were only 6 MPs.  The Liberals (or maybe we'd become the Liberal Democrats) were the first to move to allow the MPs to select the top two but then put the matter to the membership. This was thought to be modern and super-democratic and  both Labour and Conservatives eventually followed.

This has turned out to be a terrible mistake, not just for the Tories as at present, but has set back the progressive left as well

Labour members selected Jeremy Corbyn.  Personally I applauded this as he seemed to me to have been right on most things, from the rights of the Chagas Islanders to the folly of invading Iraq.  But the Labour MPs were wiser, because they perceived, correctly as it turned out, that he would  be an ineffective leader and too easy a target for the right wing press.  So the poor old Labour party remained in opposition for yet another two terms.

Similarly our Liberal Democrat members, the majority of whom had only just joined the party, chose the bouncy but inexperienced Jo Swinson as Leader, she embarrassed us by presenting  herself as the potential prime minister, lost here seat and produced a parliamentary party with 11 seats, one fewer than in the previous election.

Enough said about the Conservative party membership choosing Johnson.

 Ours is not a presidential but a parliamentary system.  For effective democratic government we should revert to choosing as prime minister whoever can command majority in the Commons.  Cut out the membership vote and leave it to the MPs.

The final major point. It is deeply embarrassing and humiliating that the return to the premiership of Mr Johnson is even being discussed  as a possibility.  Should he even be on the ticket after his abysmal record will be a source of shame.  A win for him would be beyond farce.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Musings on the Mess

 Liz Truss won the Tory leadership by promising an economic policy that most people believed was a fantasy: tax cuts coupled with increased expenditure which would be financed by the growth resulting from the tax cuts.  It was brazenly proposed by her henchman Kwarteng,  and crashed dramatically.  If she had any sense of shame she would resign (and perhaps retire to a nunnery and spend the rest of her life repenting her folly.)  But no, she is still there clinging on.  ""Brussen" is the Yorkshire word for it.

 There is now a movement to paint Jeremy Hunt, the replacement Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the saviour of the nation, and possible replacement prime minister when the Tories figure out a way of deposing Truss.  it is worth remembering that Hunt was Secretary of State of Health from 2012 to 2018, the longest servieng minister in that position in British political history.  If he were any good the NHS would be in tip-top condition.  Instead it is on its knees. Hunt re-presented may be the answer to the Tories' prayers but he is not the answer to the country's.

The debacle, the greatest and most damaging national humiliation since Suez, should see the end to two myths that have dominated British politics, the first for 40 years and the second for 20.

The forty-year old myth is the dominance of "market rules OK" neo-liberal policies which superseded Keynesianism in the 1970s and was implemented with careless ferocity by Margaret Thatcher.  From the squandering of the North Sea Oil revenues through  the privatisation of the public utilities to the flogging-off of our social housing, most of Mrs Thatcher's policies were profoundly wrong  and the source of many of our present ills.  (The one thing she got right was her resistance to a national lottery, but her successor John Major undid that.) It is a nice irony that it is the (international money) market that has finally felled this Tory creed.

The twenty-year- old myth is that of Brexit: that somehow Britain is held back by our entanglement with the EU and, set free, our exceptionalism  will enable us to ascend  to the soaring uplands of a prosperous future as an dependent world beating  universally admired entity. We are not exceptional, and, like all other nations, we are interconnected in a web of treaties, trading relationships, financial commitments and obligations. In the past we have indeed played a leading role in developing them.  We cannot escape them.

I think it was Churchill who  said that we should not let a crisis go to waste.  We on the progressive left must be careful and not underestimate the ability of the Tories, with the support of the compliant media,  to re-write history to their advantage.  After the Suez crisis they ditched their prime minister (Eden had the decency to resign and did not wait too long to be pushed) and Harold Macmillan talked up  our never having "had it so good" so that they  remained in power for another nine years.  We must make sure that this  humiliation remains to be seen what it is, highly predictable and highly avoidable and the sole responsibility of a party that has been in power for fully 12 years.

Apart from the loss of our international reputation perhaps the most serious consequence of this folly is that it has queered the pitch of those of us who believe in a Keynesian expansion to revive the economy, eliminate endemic poverty and restore the public services. 

Mr Hunt and his cohort will not hesitate to repeat the mantras of 2010 and mourn that, sad as it is, "there is no alternative" to squeezing the public realm even further in order to placate the market.

There ls another way,and that is supporting the impoverished, reviving  the public services, investing in a clean, efficient infrastructure, and paying for it by taxing those things which impinge least on current activity.  Details of such a programme are spelt out in an earlier post.

All the opposition parties, but in particular Labour, need to flesh out such a programme and proclaim it boldly, and not allow themselves to be cowed into a timid programme of Tory-Lite.

But we must not just stop at economic reform.  Our constitution, our way of doing things, is "not fit for purpose."  If it is too difficult to include specific proposals  for constitutional reform  in election manifestos, we could promise  a representative constitutional convention (or even a series of regional conventions) to take a serious look at the way we govern ourselves.  This will include consideration of: devolution to the nations and regions,our electoral systems, the second chamber, local government,   the civil service and all those things considered too arcane to bother the electorate with. 

We need not just a tinkering a the edges, but a clean sweep,

Thursday 13 October 2022

Growth: naked cake-ism

 "Growth" as a substitute for willingness to pay for what you want, has been around for at lest 60 years. It is a prize example of "having your cake and eating it." I first came across it in the campaign for the 1964 election when the then  Labour leader, Harold Wilson,  assured us that the UK could build the New Jerusalem with a modern infrastructure, effective social services, vibrant local government, well financed health and education services, without it  costing the voters  a penny.  

It would be financed out of  growth.  

Growth would be achieved  by setting up a government planning department  which would replace the uncertain progress achieved by hit and miss private enterprise.

 Labour won the election and  the Department of Economic Affairs under their Deputy Leader George Brown was set up as an antidote to Treasury staidness.  Eventually the project was blown off course by "events."

Most developed economies had, however, achieved and continued to achieve substantial growth in the 30 years after 1945.  The French called them "les Trente Glorieuses.".  The most outstanding success was Germany.  Most others achieved  a  modest annual average of around 3%.  As R A Butler, an earlier Tory panjandrum, pointed out, this enabled us to "double our standard of living in 25 years." 

However, from the mid 1970s such rates of growth became difficult to maintain.  The backlog of the war years had been eliminated, new technology had been absorbed, the economies with lots of peasants (eg France) had transferred them to the more productive industrial sectors (the UK hadn't many peasants so used immigration from the Commonwealth instead) and the economies had matured.

Nevertheless the struggle for growth continued, largely becasue it seemed to be the essential to maintain full employment.

But for those who cared to look.the writing was on the wall from the early 70s   The "Club of Rome "  (unrelated to the EU, I believe) published "The Limits to Growth" which claimed that current rates of growth among the developed countries, with less developed countries catching up, would exhaust the planet's resources and make it uninhabitable through pollution.  Their conclusion  was; "Either civilisation or growth must end." 

There have been many more recent and more readable accounts since.  In particular I recommend:

 Dan O'Neill is (or maybe was) chief economist of CASSE, the Center (it's American) for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy.  You'll find all about it here:
O'Neill was for some years on some sort of secondment from CASSE and ran seminars at Leeds University, at which I was a regular attender.
In "The Spirit Level"  Wilkinson and Pickett (Penguin 2009) show  that in the UK the fruits of growth have been unequally  shared (most go to the already rich) and the resulting inequality leads to less healthy and happy societies. 

So it beggars belief that the British government, so prone to claiming that the UK is "world leading," continues to advocate (as though they had just discovered it) not just "growth" but "Grow Growth, Growth" as the solution to all their their and our problems. 
Although they normally (they are suffering from an aberration at the moment) solemnly preach that the government must not borrow excessively  becasue that would place an unfair burden on future generations (which isn't true, but that's a topic for another post) they don't seem in the least worried about passing on a poisoned planet to those precious children and grandchildren.
For a while it is possible to compromise by advocating "sustainable growth,"  such as investing in renewable sources of energy.  Alarmingly, for this government, any sort of growth will do, even permitting fracking and re-licensing exploration for oil in the North Sea.

Future policy needs to concentrate on reducing the adverse impact of the existing pie, and looking for more equitable ways of sharing it.

At present our major parties are light years away from this.


Sunday 2 October 2022


 Our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, seems to have reduced the complex science/art of macroeconomic management to two dimensions: tax cuts and deregulation, which she believes will stimulate economic "growth."  The first is based on a false premise and is  potentially counter-productive.  The second is likely to reduce the quality of life of the over-whelming majority of us, whatever difference it might make to the monetary measurement of growth

Truss's reasoning appears to be that high taxation is holding back the "animal spirits" of our entrepreneurs.   Cut taxes and, lo and behold, adventurous entrepreneurs will invest like billy-ho, creating jobs and increasing output of all sorts of products (whether we actually need them or not.)  

But we are not a high tax country, as anyone who bothers to "research" via Google can find out. See:

The percentage of GDP taken in tax  in the major developed countries with which we like to compare ourselves is:

France          46.2%

Italy:             42.4%

Germany:    37.5%

UK               33.3%

US               27.1%    

 It is true that, for the moment, the US economy has grown by 2.6% above pre-pandemic levels, compared to Italy (1.1%), France (0.9%), and Germany not al all. (Guardian 1st October). Were there a correlation between taxation level and growth we should expect to see the UK placed somewhere between  Italy and the US.  

In fact, not only is the UK not in this position,  we are the only G7 economy  to be still below (by -0.2%) our pre-pandemic level.

So whatever it is that's holding back UK growth it is not too high a level of taxation.  That is not to say that there isn't ample scope for re-organising the UK taxation system, in particular towards taxing "bads" such as the use of fossil fuels rather than "goods" such as employment.

 Given the present dire inadequacy of our Health and Care services, the impoverishment of our Education System, and the perceived need to increase expenditure on defence, it is plainly obvious that the level of taxation needs to rise rather than fall.  The increases should be on those areas which impact least on current activity (eg wealth, inheritances and land)

 M/s Truss's policy, giving shedloads to the already wealthy and a pittance, if that, to the low-paid, creates resentment rather than the level of wiling co-operation from one and all which would be a feature of a much fairer economy where  the wealthy paid their share rather than evaded it.

 Regarding  M/s Truss's second dimension, it beggars belief that, in the wake of the recent scandal of the discharging of raw sewage into our rivers and on to our beaches and the Grenfell Tower disaster, which took over 70 lives in horrifying circumstances, both the result of entrepreneurs cutting corners to increase their profits, this suggestion could be put forward by any government claiming to have the people's welfare at heart. 

 These are just two examples. I'm sure there are plenty more: not least house builders evading their responsibility to build a reasonable percentage of "affordable" homes becasue they make more money out of so-called "executive" mansions.

Regulations are required  to protect us from exploitation  by con-men (and women), chancers and the amoral.

 It is just possible that deregulation might  raise the monetary level of GDP by  increasing the incomes of the wealthiest at the top through reducing restrictions on their ability to exploit scarce resources (eg green belt land) and vulnerable people (the very low paid).  Their increased wealth could raise the average, hence giving the appearance of success whilst actually lowering the living standards of the majority.

 The so-called "bonfire" of EU regulations is also counter-productive.  If we agreed to observe them we would  have unrestricted access to the vast EU market.  If we don't then there are harmful obstacles to the free-flow of trade.  Surely we now realise that the promise of "cake-ism" was a blatant lie.  We don't  have all the advantages of membership with none of the costs.

 Miss Truss has embarked on a doctrinaire gamble unsupported by any of the evidence.  

Yes the UK economy, and our constitution, need to be reformed, but by serious politicians  after serious consultation and discussion, with the support of the majority of the people. Let's hope that her government is short-lived and is replaced by one prepared to work constructively for a better future for us all.