Tuesday 24 October 2023

United Nations Day

 Oh valiant hearts, who to your glory came

Through  dust and conflict and conflict and through battle flame;

Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,

Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war;

As who had heard God's message from afar;

All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave

To save mankind, yourselves you scorned to save.


Those lovely lines were written by Sir  John Stanhope  Arkwright and presumably published in his collection of poems, "The Supreme Sacrifice," in 1919.  We shall be singing them to a haunting tune on Remembrance Sunday in a couple of weeks time.  They are,of course, all lies.

Over 100 years later thousands of troops are currently gathering "rank on rank" to wreak havoc in the Gaza Strip and Russian and Ukrainian boys and now girls, men and now women, are lying tranquilly or otherwise, in Eastern European soil, having already given "their all."

 Except of course that they didn't "give" it: for the most part they are and were conscripts who had and have no choice.  Their lives were and are being taken because of a failure of politics

 Someone will write nice poems and songs or their equivalent in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew,  Arabic or whatever  to sanitise the deaths so that their elders, relatives and friends can think of them as clean and noble.  But they won't have been; they well have been slow and agonising and frightening..

 Many soldiers left to die horrible deaths on the No-man's Lands of the First World War of which Arkwright wrote cried out for their mothers, in German, French or English, as appropriate.

 Today is United Nations Day, to celebrate the world's second attempt to say "never again,"  But it stands by impotent as the  leaders of the "Great Powers" look over their shoulders at the lowest instincts of their electorates. A simple motion to demand access for aid to Gaza was vetoed by the Americans.  Acting independently, the UK bravely "abstained." 

Two letters in today's Guardian call for grown-up leaders to emerge.  One, from a Prof Jeremy Holmes, asks "...what if Israel had not met horror with horror?"  Another, from a John Stone, calls for the "rules of war" to be replaced by the "principles of peace."  

Another article claims that, before the land invasion of Gaza has even started, a child is killed every 15 minutes by the aerial bombardment.  And the slaughter in Ukraine grinds on, no longer front-page news.

Prof Stone points out that Nelson |Mandela rose above the instinct of retribution and brought apartheid to an end.  We desperately need statesmen of similar calibre who are capable of harnessing our better natures.

I hope that when they appear we are prepared to support them, and that the next generation enjoys a new and refreshed United Nations.


PS.  As reported in the Guardian 25/10/23 the UN Secretary General " tells it like it is...."

Guterres said the 7 October attacks by Hamas were “appalling” but did not happen in a vacuum. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” he said. “They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”


The Israeli authorities rush to condemn him.  Now lets hope the "leaders of  the West" flock to his support.



Tuesday 10 October 2023

Starmer on Track


Starmer on Track


I thought Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour Party’s  Conference was highly competent without being actually storming.  The content was formulaic as were the routine standing ovations (are they pre-arranged?)  but enough to suggest that a Labour government will be different without being merely Tory-lite.

Starmer put the “interruption” at the beginning to good use.  It gave him an excuse to roll-up his sleeves – a better indication of being ready for the job than the hard hat and high-viz jacket Tories seem to prefer - and give the appropriate riposte that the party was now “ready for power, not just protest.”  (I wonder if that incident was staged, too?)

 There were several gibes at the antics of the party in recent years which he believed had made it unelectable.  One previous leader. Ed Miliband, was present and I hope took it all in good part.  The other Jeremy Corbyn was, I understand, not allowed to be present.

Although there was much to bring hope for the future  (without much explanation, apart from taxing non-doms, as to how the future goodies were to be financed) there was an old-fashioned ring to much of the speech.  Starmer emphasised his working class origins, there were repetitive references to “working people”           (though happily he’s moved on from “hard-working families” but what about those who can’t work or don’t any longer?)  Again and again “Conference” rather than “Comrades” was the preferred method of  appealing to the audience  but the undertones of “class war” are still there and are, I believe , an obstacle to modernising Britain.

Improvements in the NHS were a prominent feature (will the tax on non-doms be enough?) but it is to be “reformed.” (again, and again, and yet again?  Just how many times?  We need out medical staff to put their energies into curing us and keeping us healthy, not securing their positions in the next reformed hierarchy). 

Unfortunately there was no mention of what actually is in desperate need of reform, the way we are governed .  Nothing about electoral reform, making parliament more effective by, at the very least, giving it control of its own timetable etc  To be fair, I think he did mention MPs doing only one job and doing it properly, along with limited devolution to local government, so there is modest movement in the right direction.

Most disappointingly  economic growth is central to Labour’s aspirations, without any reference to the fact that, to avoid further frying the planet this must  be sustainable and not unnecessarily ravage the earth’s scarce non-renewable resources.  At a time when storms, floods and fires are making huge swathes of the earth uninhabitable this is a serious derogation of responsibility.


Thursday 5 October 2023

Tory Chutzpah


I watched Rishi Sunak’s conference speech form beginning to end yesterday. It was a masterpiece of presentation which glided effortlessly over the contradictions.   What effrontery to claim to be the candidate for change when you’ve been in power for 13 years and  connived at if not created the messes that need clearing up.  Chutzpah to the power of three.

The speech was billed to start of 11h15 put that became 11h40 and then “soon.”  It did not actually begin until after 12.  Can’t we get a simple thing like that right?  How would we react if theatres, concerts, other TV and radio programmes were as sloppy about their timing?

The speech was preceded by a toe-curling tribute from Mrs S which for those serious about politics acted more of a cool-down than a warm-up.  However the audience loved it.  The Tories are masters (and mistresses) of manipulation

In between the crowd-pleasers (his ascension from modest beginnings to greatness, tough on “scroungers, stopping the boats) he announced three major policies: scrapping HS2, making smoking illegal and reforming 16-18 education.

I welcome the scrapping of HS2.  Some of us have been arguing vigorously that it should never have been started ever since Gordon Brown announced it in 2009.  It has been a vanity project from the beginning. Britain is a small island and does not need a high speed line.  If we were to have one, just to show we could, then a line from from Scotland  to London, had it started in the North, might have made it to Leeds and been some use.   

But what we really need, and are now promised (but shall we actually get) is £30bn worth of conventional infrastructure connecting our towns and cities.  Sadly it has taken 14 years  and expenditure of £30bn  or so on a white elephant, not to mention the destruction of precious and unique environments.

The reform of 16-18 years education is also to be welcomed, but how is it to be done?  Sunak has decided that it is to be “knowledge based” which smells of rote learning.  What is actually needed today and for the future is not “knowledge,” which is available on tap at the press on an internet button, but the skills to put it to use -   “Critical thinking,” - which is possibly the last thing the Tories want, especially in regard to politics.

Rather than being imposed from the top by politicians who believe the young should learn what they did,  the education establishment, the “blob”  should be consulted.  They would probably advise that what education most urgently needs are more Sure Starts, more teachers, sound buildings, less top-down interference,  less testing and less tick-box bullying  from OFSTED.

I also welcome the phasing-out of smoking, which is to include vaping.  The obvious question is why the sale of vapes  was ever permitted in the first place (along with plastic lawns.)

 Sunak quite rightly claims that politics “isn’t working” and we the people are losing faith in it.  He also claims, with some justification, that Labour under Sir Keir Starmer will continue with  “the mixture as before” rather than bring about real change. For that we need:-


·       1.Serious constitutional reform, including PR and measures to enable parliament to control the executive, rather than vice versa.  Rather than detailed proposals  the progressive parties  should promise to establish a Royal Commission or similar to agree and make proposals,  This could involve seeking the advice of citizens’ assemblies.

·       2. A root and branch reform of our taxation system to make it fairer and skew it towards taxing “bads” rather than “goods” (see previous post.)

·       3. Measures to limit financial donations to political parties and achieve a more balanced press.

These would bring about the fundamental change Sunak recognises we urgently need.  Bur the Tories will not propose them: they prefer the system as it is, skewed in their favour by the FPTP electoral system, executive control of parliament, and virtually unlimited support from rich individuals and the biased press.

Labour is too frightened to take up these causes.

The return of a goodly number of Liberal Democrat and Green MPs might provide the necessary steel.


Tuesday 3 October 2023

Truths about Tax





      At a time when our  public services are clearly and obviously crumbling (schools literally, housing inadequate and unaffordable, health services strained beyond the limit, councils going bust, transport systems clogged, courts with an unacceptable backlog, prisons overflowing with mental patients and fivers with sewage) it beggars belief that none of our major parties have the courage  to tell us that we, the electorate, if we want them to be made “fit for purpose,” are going to have to pay.

Alarmingly,  even mainstream Conservatives are seriously calling for tax CUTS before the next election.  Labour is paralysed with fear and has ruled out any  income tax rises or a wealth tax, and we Liberal Democrats have dropped our proposal, first introduced in the now distant days of Paddy Ashdown, for an extra  penny on income tax for education.

All the  parties peddle the “something for nothing” concept that all our desires can be financed absolutely free through growth of the economy.

 Even if it were possible to produce enough sustainable growth  that wouldn’t further fry the planet and exhaust its non-renewable resources, such growth would take years, and the need, for schools, medical care, homes fit to live in and air fit to breath, is now.

The Tories hammer away at the fact that the UK’s tax take is at a 70 year high.  What they do  not say is that our tax take, compared with similar countries, is average to low (and most of the similar countries do not have 13 years of neglect to catch up on.)

Figures from the impartial OBR, for the most recent year available  (2021) show the UK’s percentage of GDP taken in tax  is 33.5%.  This is 3.3% BELOW  the G7 average, and 6.4% BELOW the average for the EU14 (similarly advanced developed countries).

So why have our political parties painted themselves into corners by promising not to raise taxes, and in one case to impoverish our public services even further by lowering them?

 It is surely time to stop pretending, treat the electorate as adults, and tell the truth 

 1. Stop calling taxation a “burden”: it  is the subscription we pay for the privilege of membership of a civilised and decently functioning society.

2.    2. If we want our society to come up to scratch and actually function decently we have to be prepared to pay.

Given that the UK’s tax system, like Topsy,  has “just growed” in a haphazard  manner and subject to many eye-catching wheezes designed to encourage voters to support the government  of the time there is need for a root and branch reform of the system designed to promote fairness and, in particular, to engineer a shift from taxing “goods” such as employment  to “bads” such as pollution, unnecessary use of non-renewable resources and rentiers.

The progressive parties should advocate a Royal Commission or similar to consider and propose systemic reform.

In the meantime, a Professor Richard Murphy has identified a list of some 30 “reforms” which the parties have no yet ruled out, but could raise up to £50bn a year. They include:

·       Restricting tax relief on pension to the standard rate:

·       Subjecting landlords to NICs

·       Subjecting financial services to paying VAT.

On my personal list I would subject rising house  prices to CGT, place a Tobin-type tax on all financial transactions, and that old Liberal favourite, introduce site value rating on land.

 An article in today’s Guardian* by a Dr Prabhaker of the Open University suggests some interesting ways of raising revenue by curtailing or amending some of the many exemptions from taxation which have been introduced over the years.

 The need is to put behind us boosterish boasts about “World-leading Britain” and bring our public services, and our tax take to pay for them, up to average.