Thursday, 14 December 2017

Tidings of (modified) joy.

Well, maybe things are just taking a turn or the better.  The defeat of the Republican candidate  in the election for a senator for Alabama  shows that the US electorate might, just might, be beginning to see the light about the awfulness of President Trump's attitudes and policies.

Here in the UK the House of Commons has  defeated the May Government's arrogant attempt to force through whatever Brexit deal they achieve without any serious possibility of parliament's having any meaningful say. How the new situation will work out in practice is yet to be seen but the significance is that, at last, MPs are  beginning to flex their  muscles and make that point that "taking back control" means taking it back to parliament and not to an over-mighty executive.

The muscle-flexing is so far fairly timid, It has depended on the "left of centre" opposition - Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats and the one Green being pretty united, with a handful of Tory MPs abstaining and only 11 having the guts to vote against the government.  However, this could be the turn of the tide - the event by which, after 18 months of timidity, MPs begin to think for themselves and do what they know to be right rather than slavishly obey their whips.

It really is astonishing that so few Conservative MPs, which their ostentatious posturing over the wonders of British institutions, traditions and values, are prepared to put the long-term interests of the country before short-term party advantage.  With our history of parliaments gradually wresting power from a mighty executive, (we even fought a civil war on it) how can they be so supine as to be willing to hand it back again?

I wonder how the events of the last two years or so would have played with our press and public opinion if a left-wing party in power had been hijacked by a handful of extremists and:

  • called a referendum on an issue which was dear to their own  ideology but not high on the priorities of most of the electorate;
  • failed to take any precautions to ensure a fair and honest debate;
  • declared a narrow result in their favour to be sacrosanct, in spite of the facts that the referendum was advisory only, many of the key facts on which they had argued were phoney and there were suspicions of illicit finance along with foreign interference in support of their case;
  • tried desperately to avoid parliament having any say in the implementation of the result;
  • fought the issue in court when objectors tried to invoke the "sovereignty of parliament;"
  • abused  the judges as "enemies of the people" when the courts decided against them;
  • took advantage of a supine opposition, terrified of press, to force the decision though parliament;
  • ploughed on regardless of the fact that  almost all informed opinion regarded their policy as hugely damaging to the future status of the country and welfare of its people:
  • used every device in their power, including blackening any opponents in their own party as well as in he opposition, as traitors and mutineers.
  • continued to make every attempt to avoid giving  parliament any meaningful say in the outcome of their policy.
There would be hell to play.

For example, way back in 1968, when Lord King, a press baron, decided that the country was dangerously "out of control" under Harold Wilson's Labour government, he called a secret meeting to plan to overthrow him and it and appoint Lord Mountbatten as the necessary "strong man."  The plan flopped when Mountbatten, who was present at the meeting, walked away as  he realised that what was being proposed amounted to treason.

What a difference a supine press makes

Saturday, 9 December 2017

At last, cheer for the Brexiteers

In the eighteen months since the Referendum virtually all the EU/Brexit news has been bad..  I haven't kept a list, but, off the cuff:
  • citizens from other countries are increasingly abused and vilified on Britain's streets;
  • a 15% or so depreciation in the value of the £ is  feeding inflation, but not, so far, stimulating exports;
  • the promise of  £350m a week for the NHS turns out to be hollow, and those who made it say it was never meant to be taken seriously anyway.;
  • industrial and commercial investment has  stalled;
  • we have slipped from being  the fastest growing economy in the G7 to one of the slowest;
  • a hidden (ie never mentioned in the Referendum campaign) decision to leave EURATOM, wiull hamper supplies of  vital radioactive isotopes for, among others,  the NHS;
  • free trade deals with other countries are  not, after all, two a penny, and those available will  probably be on foreigners' terms (eg hormone-packed beef and chlorine-washed chicken from the US);
  •  banks  are planning or threatening to relocate in continental centres: Frankfurt and Dublin often cited as likely bases  for future financial hubs;
  • EU institutions are moving out of London - the European Banking Authority to Paris and the European Medicines Agency to Amsterdam;
  • the government has not after all conducted  a detail examination of the likely effects of Brexit on various sectors of the economy, and our cabinet has not yet discussed what it eventually wants to achieve.
In spite of the almost daily dose of "fresh disasters"* provoked by Brexit the Brexiteers keep their peckers up and continue to promise sunlit uplands for the "global Britain" once the EU shackles are removed.

Now at last they have something to cheer.  Mrs May, after a midnight flight to Brussels (which evokes memories of Chamberlain's flight to Germany  and return with his bit of papers promising "peace in our time") has secured agreement to move  on to the next stage of the negotiations.

In spite of the fact that this agreement has been achieved some two months later than was originally anticipated, she is for the moment the heroine of the hour.

However, we are accustomed to seeing, for example, budgets hailed on the day as works of genius by the incumbent chancellor, and unravelled a few days later after examination of the small print,

I suspect something similar will happen to this agreement.

  • the divorce bill has rocketed from an initial "they can whistle" (Foreign Secretary Johnson) to €/£20bn and then almost doubled to around  €/£40bn;
  • the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the rest of the EU will continue to be  subject to the jurisdiction of the European Count of Justice (ECJ) for a least eight years, though  we shall no longer have any  representation on the ECJ;
  • ro avoid a "hard border" in Ireland  regulations in Northern Ireland (and by implication, the rest of the UK) will be "aligned" to those of the to the EU..  
Such is the chutzpah of the Brexiteers that former Tory Leader Ian Duncan Smith claims that the EU have "blinked first."  For one I agree with Nigel Farage that, in order to reach some sort of agreement, Mrs May has caved in on all counts.

I want to make it clear that the above anomalies are from the point of view of the Brexiteers, not me.  If we must leave the EU I believe that our international reputation demands that we pay our full dues (eg for pensions and expenditure committed whilst we were member), with the amount determined by an independent arbiter.  I am very happy to be subject to the decisions of the ECJ, as we are subject to the decisions of umpteen other international tribunals, and it is my firm belief that  our regulations should not just be "aligned" to the EU, but we should remain as full and co-operative members of the Customs Union and Single Market, indeed of the EU itself, thus helping to make the regulations as well as obeying them.

Apart from  the economic and social impacts of the Brexit obsession, I have two major worries.

First the four opening headlines on the BBC news a few days ago were:

  • The Vice Chancellor of Bath Spa University was to be given a pay-off of £800millions (By contrast Job Seekers receive £71.10 a week.   Asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work, must subsist on £36.95 a week, of which, says our Home Office, £24.39 is for food and £2.60 a week is designated for clothing)
  • a government minister said that former ISIS fighters should not be allowed back into Britain but hounded to their deaths (no trial was mentioned and the rule of law ignored):
  • the number waiting over the maximum of 4 hours for treatment in hospital Accident and Emergency Departments has increased  by 120%.  If that were measured in dozens that would be bad enough, but I believe the total is over 3 million:
  • The Queen launched the world's most expensive warship, an aircraft carrier, and named it after herself, but it will be some years before we can afford to equip it with the necessary aircraft.
In other words, idiocies like this are happening on a daily basis, but they are pushed to the sidelines rather than dealt with, because the government puts all its energy into Brexit.

Second, although most concern is devoted to the economic damage that Brexit will cause, whatever it is we shall still be a wealthy nation and , if we have the political  wilt to share our wealth equitably we can all live comfortable lives. No one need suffer economic hardship.. 

However,already our political influence is diminishing and will diminish even further outside the EU.

Which all our faults and limitations the UK has  in the past made a positive contribution to the creation of a  fairer and more liberal world, helping to create and promote the international rule of law.  We are no longer the Great Power I was  taught to think we were when Churchill sat with Truman and Roosevelt in my childhood.  But inside the EU we are still among the "big hitters".  Outside  we shall sink to the third or fourth division.

At a time when the major power promoting and defending liberal democracy, the US, is in questionable hands, the world is surely looking for alternative leadership. This is  no time to opt out.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

UK's deaf ears to the Irish Border problem

As a former teacher I'm quite accustomed to people not listening.  That's why I always regarded the golden rule of successful teaching to be:

  • tell them what you're going to tell them;
  •  tell them
  •  tell them what you've told them.
Of course, this approach wouldn't wash with OFSTED and its aims "tailored for every individual child"  but I found it pretty effective with my students..

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to work with British politicians, or the British media.

From the beginning the European Commission has been perfectly and repeatedly clear that progress on trade deals etc could not proceed until satisfactory arrangement had been made on the three basics of the UK's "divorce" settlement, the status of EU nationals already in the UK, and the Irish border.

It has always been obvious that the divorce settlement would be easiest to settle because it is the easiest to fudge.  Now that fudge has been reached.  Boris Johnson's lofty assertion that [the EU] could "whistle for their money" was clearly directed at his potential supporters -  "Boris will tell 'em!" - rather than a serious contribution.  An initial offer of around £20bn was  hinted at and the EU was said to be thinking of anything up to €100bn.

Now the compromise of around £/€50bn appears to be on the table but, since no specific final amount is mentioned, and the payment could be in instalments over several years, or even decades, after the initial indignation the whole thing will be pushed into the long grass as we obsess on other things (possibly more royal babies.)

A civilised reciprocal arrangement for EU citizens already in the UK and UK citizens remaining in the EU should not be beyond the will of skilful diplomats.  "All the rights you already have," announced on the day after the referendum, would and should have been a healthy start. If our government were capable of shame they would experience it in the cruel folly of making people's lives a bargaining chip

But there really is no credible solution to the problem of the Irish border.  The Brexiteers fantasise about some technology so modern that it does not yet exist  which will allow free passage of goods and services from Northern Ireland, in the UK and outside the EU, to the Republic of Ireland, in the EU and outside the UK, without the UK's being in the Customs Union or even the Single Market

This obviously can't be done.  the Irish Government and the EU's negotiators,have said so from the beginning.  The Brexiteers, and their supine media supporters, have simply not listened, and now cry "foul" as the December deadline for the next stage of the talks approaches.

This earlier post illustrates how tragic it will be if this wilful blindness upsets the fragile peace based on the Good Friday Agreement and results in a resumption of the "Troubles" which have caused so much misery for  ordinary people for the past century and more.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Timid touches of the tiller in Hammond's budget.

The most eye-catching announcement in the Conservative budget - the standard "rabbit out of the hat" designed to catch the headlines - is the exemption from stamp duty for first-time buyers of houses up to the value of £300 000.  Happily this is by no means as generous as it looks, as house purchases up to the value of £125 000 are already exempt.

 Given that the average value of the first time buy is £165 000 this means that the lucky purchaser will save a princely 2% of £40 000, or £800: better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, as the Australians say, but hardly the kick in the backside  needed to to stimulate our dysfunctional housing supply

Buyers in London, where house prices are higher, will gain the benefit of the exemption up to £300 000 for purchases up to half a million, which can amount to £5 000 for those with monster salaries or a generous and helpful "bank of mum and dad."

So, be it £800 or £5 000, this either a nice little extra or a generous bung for the "haves" in society: a typical feature  of a Tory budget. 

Similarly the rises in the thresholds for the payment of income tax  benefit the "haves"  already paying the standard rate (an extra £70 a year, 20% of the tax exempt increase of £350) and ££340 a year for those on the £40%rate.  By contrast those receiving Universal Credit  gain a net ££25.90 a year, or about 50p a week.  More Tory "unto him that hath shall be given"

More promising is the tacit abandonment of the desperate attempt to put the economy to rights by the fancifully named "expansionary fiscal contraction "  - analogous in medical terms  to bleeding the patient until he or she either expires  or gives a desperate jerk back to life.  This budget is mildly, very mildly, Keynesian, with extra government borrowing of £2.7bn next year  for infrastructure development (some of it in the North!), and ££9.2bn (wow!) for  for 2019-20.

How much past and future misery could have been avoided if this light had flashed into the blinkered neoliberal eyes from 2010 onwards.

Because the truth of the budget is in the forecasts: that the miracle promised from 2010 onwards has failed, , and all those boasts about the "long term economic plan" are empty air.

The economy has stalled and with no substantial change of direction (and government?) we shall be limping along for another decade or so before we get back to where we were before the 2007/8 crash., Until then the poorest and weakest in our society must continue to bear the burden, with those on Job Seekers' Allowance, poor things, continuing to tote their CVs,  on an unimproved  £73 30 a week ( £57.90 if under 25) and new  recipients of Universal Credit mildly comforted by having to live without incomes for only five waiting weeks rather than six..

Figures quoted in this post can be found here

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Budget obsession

The annual obsession of Britain's political and chattering classes with the government's budget is both  unhealthy and unrealistic.

Unhealthy because it is simply not true, for the vast majority of us, that a little bit more or a little bit less income or spending power is going to make much difference to the quality of our lives and our happiness.  Yet on Thursday (the budget is tomorrow, Wednesday) the papers will be full of charts and columns showing how the budget will affect the incomes  and spending of various groups: single people; single mothers with one, two or three children;  happy families with a mother, father and 2.4 children; pensioner couples, and single pensioners.

For all of these groups a decision to take a twenty-minute walk every day, to eat less junk food, and to smile more often at our neighbours, would make far more difference to the quality of our lives than any decision the chancellor of the exchequer can make.

That is not to say that those on and below the margin, some twenty percent of our population, will not be affected by minor changes in their incomes, but these can be made, and often are, at any time on the year. .A decision to cut the "waiting time" for universal credit from six to four weeks has already been made, and it should now  be reduced by anther two,  There's bags of opportunity to force builders hoarding land with planing permission (a problem that  has existed for decades, but which the government has apparently only just recognised) to build on it or lose it.

There is no need to parcel all the possible improvements into one piece of political theatre.

Unrealistic because  there is the expectation  that the budget, for good or ill, will turn round the fortunes of the government.  Uniquely I think, some members of the governing party are hoping that the budget will be a flop as  this will enable them to get rid of the chancellor becasue he is insufficiently enthusiastic about Brexit.  But how many. other than anoraks (and not all of those)  now remember the details of last year's budget, or even George Osborne's omishambles?

More seriously, it is unrealistic that one collection  of economic tweaks  is going to transform the ailing British economy. As Larry Elliott pointed out here; 

"even before the referendum Britain was running a record current account deficit, growth was being pumped up by an overheating housing market, factories were still producing  less than before the start of the financial crisis, and people in the poorest parts of the country were being targeted  with deep cuts in welfare benefits."

Since the referendum matters have worsened. The pound has depreciated by some 15%, fuelling inflation; investment  has been held back because of the uncertainty caused be Brexit, and influential firms and organisations are either planning or actually moving to other countries. Yesterday, for example, it was announced that Goldman Sachs would make Paris and Frankfurt their post-Brexit" hubs,"  and two EU institutions will, not unexpectedly, move out of London:  the Banking Authority also to Paris and the Medicines Agency to Amsterdam.

There used to be a "joke" that it took three  miles (or was it three leagues?) to turn round the RMS Queen Mary.  Something similar can be said of the British economy: it well take not one but a decade or more   of the constructive budgets to put matters right..  There is no shortage of such constitutive ideas.  My own humble Keynesian contribution was published as early as 2011 and can be seen here.It all remains highly relevant, though I would now add, of course , that we abandon Brexit.

If Mr Hammond sticks to his guns tomorrow's budget may make a start, but I suspect it will be modest.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Albion still perfidious.

I think most of we British are at least vaguely aware, possibly from the Lawrence of Arabia film, or reading his book, that our government let down, or even double-crossed, the Arabs, after the First World War.

As I understand it, and I'm no expert, Britain  promised, or at least indicated to, the Arab peoples, that if they revolted against the Ottoman Empire which had for centuries ruled much of the Middle East and was our enemy in the First World War, then, when the Allied victory was achieved, their lands would be handed over (or back?) to the Arabs as their own country.  This is what Lawrence of Arabia is said to have believed and promised the Arabs if they gave their support to the British forces.

Instead, the British and French parcelled up the area between them in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and, on top of that, apportioned a chunk as an international home for the Jews,without so much as a with your leave or a by your leave of the people who lived there,  in the Balfour Declaration..

Less well known (or at least it was new to me) was a betrayal of Chinese expectations which was exposed in a documentary, Britain's Forgotten Army, shown on Channel 4 last week and still available to watch again here.

Some 140 000 Chinese were recruited and acted as labourers for the Allies on the Western Front and elsewhere during the First World War.  Many were killed, and it is acknowledge that, without their help, it would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, to supply the troops.  In the event of Allied victory the Chinese government anticipated that the German concessions on the Chinese mainland would be handed back to them.  This expectation (promise?) was ignored at the Versailles Peace Conference, and the concessions were handed over to China's traditional enemy, Japan.

"New" Labour's shadow foreign secretary in the 1990s, Robin Cook, aware of this history of duplicity, outlined the "ethical foreign policy"Labour would adopt if returned to power.  He had the honesty  to resign when Tony Blair's government supported the Americans in the invasion of Iraq.  Sadly this exemplar of political  immediate integrity died shortly afterwards.  Cook's successor, Jack Straw, quickly reverted to type and it is hard to see your foreign policy becoming more ethical under the present foreign secretary, the vacillating and opportunist Boris Johnson.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Remembrance Day

Here's a telling sentence from Giles Fraser's article in yesterday's Guardian:

"...I am always conscious that remembrance is too easily purloined by those who want to celebrate precisely the sort of militarism  and nationalistic chauvinism that led so many young men  to pointless deaths."

That certainly resonates with me, and for some years, in order to try and balance the motives behind Poppy Day I've worn a white poppy* alongside the red one..

In his article Fraser quotes this poem by  Ellis Humphrey Evans, who was killed on the first day of Passchendaele:

Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?

Man raised his sword, once God had gone,
To slay his brother, and the roar
Of battlefields now casts upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.

The harps to which we sang are hung,
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain

I believe the poem was originally written in Welsh.

I shall try to publish this post as near as possible to 11am today, and reflect on  the poem in my Two Minutes' silence.

* These can be obtained from the Peace Pledge Union.  It's probably too late to buy one for this year but you cn read about them here.