Monday, 31 December 2012

Rational Policy Making Vs The NHS Cult

Here’s an uncomfortable fact for you. Did you know that the unit cost of providing healthcare is rising at the rate of 9-10% per year? That means that for the NHS to deliver the same standard of healthcare next year as it has this year it will either have to spend 9-10% more or find ways to work 9-10% more efficiently. The alternative is that the quality or amount of care provided by the NHS will shrink by the same amount. This is a policy fact, not a political point. It cannot be made to disappear by a rousing speech about “saving our NHS”.

For whatever reason, the British are squeamish about discussing the cost of healthcare and even more so about discussing the ways in which it can be delivered. It is the ‘state religion’, as one ex-Chancellor quipped. As I have found to my cost on a number of occasions, if you raise this question in polite society you are accused of wanting to sell the NHS and to leave the poor to die of Victorian diseases. The problem is that the question is real, and that response simply ignores it.

By far the most popular policy would be to simply increase health spending by the required amount. Well, the NHS currently costs around £100bn per year. So that means finding £110bn next year, £121bn the year after and so on. Because the costs are rising so much faster than the general rate of inflation (around 3%), eventually the money to do this runs out. That’s pretty much the point we are at now, what with that massive unsustainable public deficit that people keep banging on about. The increased spending option no longer exists.

A different route, which was half attempted earlier this year by the coalition, is a structural change in the way healthcare is delivered. Suppose that instead of the government being the provider of healthcare (e.g. actually running the hospitals) it was simply a purchaser? In theory*, private companies would compete against each other to provide the cheapest and best service which the government would then pay for. It would still be free at point of use, so nobody would be denied healthcare because they were poor. How could anybody object? Well they did, and all because they heard the words ‘private’ and ‘NHS’ near each other. I put it to you that this is not a rational way to make policy, and is storing up even bigger problems for the future.

My general point here is that there is a very real need to address the challenge of healthcare costs today, particularly as we have an aging population which is going to make it even more expensive to deliver healthcare, and require it to be funded by a relatively smaller tax base. When you hear a politician say that they will ‘defend the NHS’ or keep it ‘free of market forces’, ask them how they will address the cost problem. I bet you they have no answer. Well, we need one, and we need it soon.  

*In reality this might not work quite so smoothly, for a number of reasons that I don’t have the space for here. If you are interested, let me know and I’ll write a separate post on the subject.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The State of Play

Since writing a review of the year is too much of a cliché, but an excess of mince pies and brandy has sapped my imagination, I’m going to look at the prospects for the main political parties as we enter 2013. Oddly enough, none of them look on top form, but there are interesting trends to note and things to watch out for. As we shall see, we could be in for a fascinating year.

The Liberal Democrats

Oh dear. David Cameron once said that his favourite political joke was Nick Clegg. Well, Nick’s merry band of sandal wearers is now in such a bad way that pointing and laughing seems almost like bullying. In a recent by-election they actually managed to come eighth, the worst result in their entire history. The idea that a party whose voters generally choose it because it represents ‘none of the above’ could ever retain their support in government has been exposed as ridiculous. I have no sympathy.

That said, they are as cheerful as lemmings as they march towards their certain doom. The party is not tearing itself apart as you might expect. Their conference showed a remarkable degree of unity, and a desire to get on with the serious business of government (bless). The probable result of this is that they will continue to hold up their side of the coalition deal for as long as possible. Facing absolute devastation in the event of a general election, and with a party that wishes to be in a functioning government, Nick Clegg will stay the course. The same could be said of the captain of the Titanic, but there we go.


Superficially, this has been a pretty good year for the Labour Party. A well received conference speech silenced many critics of Ed Miliband’s leadership, who had previously written him off as a looser and a weirdo. The government’s extraordinary budget induced nervous breakdown resulted in Labour building up consistent opinion poll leads, which if translated into votes at a general election would see them in government with a comfortable majority of around 100.

You will note that I said superficially. Ed Miliband has now been ‘leading’ the Labour Party for two years. When he started out he set up a policy review which, starting with a blank sheet of paper, was to devise the policies which the Labour Party was to present to the British public. Two years and £1 million later, and that sheet of paper is still blank. His Shadow Chancellor has argued that the government’s economic policy is all wrong, and been rejected by the voters for his troubles, despite the continuing dire state of the British economy. When the Labour leadership does come up with an idea, it tends to be of the half baked variety, and is quickly forgotten. That well received conference speech brilliantly glossed over the fact that the Labour Party currently has no program for government, no agreed direction (‘one nation’ is a slogan, not a governing philosophy), and not a great deal of time to develop either. They are currently basking in the reflected glory of the government’s entirely predictable mid-term blues. Enjoy it while it lasts boys.

The Conservatives

This is where all the action in British politics is right now. In terms of party politics, the single most important event of the year was when Nick Clegg blocked the boundary review, effectively making it much harder for the Conservatives to win the next election. Harder, but not impossible. I’ve shown you how weak the underlying position of the other parties really is, and David Cameron can see this too. The path is open for a Blair style bid for the centre ground, made by a party that seems competent and yet in tune with the general mood of the British public. Cameron is still the sort of leader who could pull this off. His problem is that his party seem to disagree, both that he should be the leader, and that a bid for the centre ground is the path to success. A large group of Tory backbench rebels has coalesced this year, seemingly vetoing anything they consider unsound, which coincidentally is anything proposed by David Cameron that they don’t consider right wing enough.  

This is about to get a whole lot worse. If one thing unites and excites these rebels more than anything else in the whole world, it is a venomously hostile attitude to Europe. As luck would have it, circumstances have conspired to force Mr Cameron to actually have a European policy, which will probably (unwisely) involve some kind of in/out referendum. We could well be treated to a bitter factional fight between the Tory leadership, who as a rule are in favour of staying in, and their near fanatical activist/backbench base, about a subject that does not excite voters in the slightest. This is how John Major’s government imploded. Cameron has serious political skills, but it is going to take all of them to avoid this happening. Baring the inevitable unforeseen events, this is going to be the biggest political story of 2013, and although the public don’t care yet, the stakes are very high indeed. Should be fun.

Friday, 21 December 2012

When Jingoism Goes Bad

All but the most heavily sedated amongst you will have noticed that something has gone a bit wrong with the economy in recent years. It has gone so wrong that even our leaders in Westminster have been informed, and they have told us that they want to make economic recovery the government’s number one priority. You would think that this desire was shared by the people of Britain, who are the ones which are suffering, after all. The evidence sometimes suggests otherwise.

Yesterday, Transport Minister Simon Burns caved in to a local campaign and ruled that the Port of Dover cannot be sold to foreign owners, despite those prospective owners offering to inject £10 million immediately, followed by £1 million a year for five years into the local area. This is investment that the area, which suffers high levels of deprivation, desperately needs. Surely, if investment of this level is to be turned down, then the local objections must have been compelling, right? Prepare to be disappointed.

We learn from the Ministers rejection decision that the objections raised concerned “security, immigration and its [the ports] historic significance". We can immediately write off the concerns about security and immigration as obviously idiotic. UK law, regulation and enforcement would still apply to the port if it were in private hands, just as they do now. Nobody was proposing selling off the border agency, only the port they were policing. This leaves ‘historical significance’. It is here that the whole affair becomes embarrassing.

Historical significance boils down to something like ‘Dover is a symbol of British pride. We won’t let it fall in to the hands of dastardly foreigners’. The campaign was led by that well known maritime transport expert Dame Vera Lynn. Dover’s Conservative MP, Charlie Elphicke was actually happy to give the following quote:

 “The port of Dover is the gateway to our nation and should be forever England as much as Stonehenge and Buckingham Palace. The whole community is absolutely delighted that it won't end up owned by the French or the Chinese or anyone else”

What magnificent economic logic we see displayed there. What difference would the nationality of the corporate owners of a port make to the gateway of the nation? Well, they’d pay to spruce it up a bit for one thing. Britain benefits hugely from foreign investment, usually with no complaints. Do people think that if the port facility was sold off then some foreign country would dismantle the white cliffs of Dover? Perhaps they think that the immovable port could somehow be outsourced? Or, more realistically, are we looking at a case of self harming jingoism?

There is a serious point here. Investment in infrastructure like the Port of Dover is vital if we want to begin growing the economy again. Real people’s jobs and prosperity depend on us taking mature and adult economic decisions. Sadly, the decision making process in Dover more closely resembles this:

Monday, 17 December 2012

An Armed Society Is Not Free

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

So runs the Second Amendment of the US constitution. This is the reason that firearms are freely available in the United States. If, like me, you believe that the ready availability of guns enables tragedies like what happened on Friday, then you must be willing to seriously address the moral arguments for a gun owning society.

The US was founded by an armed revolution against an undemocratic government. The Americans won their freedom by fighting for it, a fact that was recognised by George Washington in his 1790 State of the Union Address. The “well regulated militia” referenced in the Second Amendment were the armed Americans which he had led to freedom. If they had not been armed then they would still be subject to tyranny. It seemed logical that US freedom depended on this ‘common defence’ against overbearing government.

It is 2012. The time has come to make the case that the conditions which required an armed society no longer hold true. This is not because the idea of freedom is no longer important. It is because an armed society is impinging on the freedom of its members, who cannot in any meaningful sense be said to have a defence against their government through their possession of small arms, yet must live in fear of the consequences of mass gun ownership.

Consider the weapons that are available to US citizens. In some jurisdictions it is legal to own fully automatic assault weapons (e.g. the Colt M-4). These weapons are devastating in a school, or in a cinema. But does anybody seriously think that they provide any form of defence against the means available to the US government? The last US citizens who tried to find out were the Branch Davidians at Waco in 1993. Small arms were of no use against armoured vehicles. In the modern world, freedom from overbearing government can only come from democratic control of that government by the governed. There are no other realistic means available.     

In 1941, in a speech which echoed round the world, President Roosevelt defined freedom by four simple points. Free people can worship as they please, speak as they wish, live without the ravages of deprivation and be free from fear. Yet today it is fear which stalks the United States. The fear felt by parents who leave their children at the school gates, knowing that others who have done the same never saw their children again. The attempt to ensure a free society by arming its members has reached the point where the freedom of those members is actually diminished. Seen from this perspective, gun control is consistent with US liberty. We can only hope that this can be recognised before the next mass killing.       

Monday, 10 December 2012

Why Are They Smiling?

In last week’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor basically admitted that his economic policy has failed on its own terms, i.e. the national debt is not going to fall in the time that he had planned. In a previous post I argued that I am unable to say with any authority whether a better policy is open to him in economic terms. Today I want to look at the politics surrounding his austerity program, because the public reaction to the failure is somewhat counter intuitive, to say the least.

As a rule, the British public is unforgiving of politicians. We tend to distrust them and, especially in the wake of the expenses scandal, assume the worst about their intentions. Combine that with the very serious argument against the Chancellor’s economic policies and you would think that we would be ready to throw him out of power at the first available opportunity. Yet this does not seem to be the case.

The message that George Osborne wants us to hear is that the coalition inherited a huge mess from the previous administration, and that it is taking longer than expected to clean up. He wants us to think that although it is hard going with him in charge, Labour would be even worse, and that they cannot be trusted with the economy again. What is interesting is that despite the dire economic circumstances many of us find ourselves in, the evidence suggests that we are taking him at face value.

According to a Yougov opinion poll, conducted after the Autumn Statement, more people blame Labour for the cuts than blame the coalition. A majority believe the cuts to be necessary, indicating that Ed Balls’ “too far too fast” Keynesian argument has failed to get through. Only 24% of those polled think that the economy would be doing better under Labour, and 38% think it would be weaker. The general feeling seems to be that the situation we are in is bad but it is Labour’s fault and Labour cannot be trusted to fix it.

This is a disastrous result for Ed Miliband’s party. Right now, in the middle of the Parliament, is traditionally the time when public disaffection with the governing party is at its highest. The economy looks set to be the central issue of the next election (assuming no large scale war breaks out) and yet the public do not want Labour to go anywhere near it. The consistent and intellectually coherent Keynesian argument that Ed Balls has spent two years setting out has basically been rejected. They are no closer to winning back the public’s trust on the key issue of the day than they were when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.

I personally think this is an almost impossible situation for Labour to turn around. If they stick with their current position the public look set to continue rejecting it. Yet how can they credibly change course now, having spent two and a half years making this case? As things stand, George Osborne has presided over the longest economic slump in British history, and probably won the next election as a result. No wonder he’s smiling. 

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Suicide and Social Media

In light of the suspected suicide of the nurse who answered the prank call made by two Australian DJs to the King Edward VII hospital earlier this week, I want to make a brief appeal for restraint to those of you that use social media such as Twitter.

The Samaritans warn journalists that irresponsible reporting of suicide can increase the likelihood that others will attempt it. They advise that any coverage must take care not to simplify the reasons for the person’s death, never to claim that there are ‘positive’ side effects and to avoid any melodramatic or romantic descriptions of the event or its repercussions.

The torrent of complaints and abuse that the Australian radio station is receiving as a result of this call comes dangerously close to breaching all these rules. We do not actually know anything about the nurse in question, or her personal circumstances. There is a simplistic assumption that the prank call was the cause of the suicide, when it is likely to have more complex causes. The way that the public outcry has caused the DJs in question to be taken off the air comes close to providing the suicide with a form of utility, which it categorically did not have. What happened was that two teenagers lost their mother. No justice has been served.

I am bringing the journalistic guidelines to your attention because in the age of Twitter we are all journalists. We all have a responsibility, when publishing on a public forum, to ensure that what we say will not make incidents like this more likely.

If you wish to talk through any issues raised in this post, then the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They can be contacted by phone on 08457 90 90 90 (UK) and 1850 60 90 90 (ROI).

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Autumn Statement, and a Challenge for Economists

This week has been dominated by the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, a mini budget which set out the economic position of the UK, and the policy consequences. However you look at it, the news is grim. Real terms cuts to benefits, increased taxes in pensions and a bleak outlook suggesting that it will be many years before the economy returns to healthy growth are the order of the day.

I want to take a step back and suggest that, strategically speaking, the statement was actually less than meets the eye. No big change of direction was announced, although the situation is so dire that a shift in course might well be warranted. There are arguments that Britain should be on a different path, and I think it is worth bringing these to your attention, despite my limited knowledge of economics.

The statement itself was broadly speaking a continuation of the policy of economic austerity that was initiated in 2010. The underlying analysis is that Britain is suffering the effects of a debt crisis caused by excessive borrowing in the years leading up to the crash. A bloated and unproductive public sector, funded by borrowing, is dragging the economy down and crowding out productive investment in the private sector. This situation is unsustainable, and public borrowing must be brought down in order to free up resources to invest in the private sector. The spending cuts and tax rises in the statement are an attempt to do this. The problem that the Chancellor has is that the dire growth forecasts indicate that this is not working. As far as I can see, there are two major theoretical alternatives to this policy, which I shall set out below.

The first is that the policy is not working because it is self defeating. When public spending is cut demand is sucked out of the economy. In very crude terms all those sacked public sector workers are no longer spending their wages in local shops, so those shops go bust as well. The fewer businesses there are, the fewer there are paying tax, and the harder it is to pay off the public debt. The answer is fiscal stimulus, i.e. maintain high levels of public borrowing to maintain demand until the private sector recovers, and let this growth pay down the debt. This is the diametric opposite of the UK’s current economic policy.

The second alternative is that the policy is failing because it is too timid. The deficit (let alone the debt) is not being reduced because the measures announced so far are small in relation to the problem. Radical supply side reform and really drastic cuts are needed. This means (and these are random examples from off the top of my head) things like abolishing employment protection to make employing people cheaper, abolishing useless government departments (e.g. Culture, Media and Sport) slashing benefit programs like tax credits and other such policies. Only then will the conditions for economic growth be present.

For once I’m going to admit ignorance. I am not an economist and I do not know which approach, if either, is correct. If anybody does write anything from a position of knowledge in the comments I will, with permission, publish it as a full post. Blog rules apply; nothing over 600 words, assertions must be linked to credible sources where possible, and nothing which requires specialist training to understand. The floor is yours.   

Friday, 30 November 2012

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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Significance of UKIP

Is it time to start taking UKIP seriously? This should be a classic ‘question to which the answer is no’, and yet this week, in the wake of the ridiculous Rotherham foster parent case, we find that they are at their highest ever level of popularity. Furthermore, serious Conservative politicians are arguing that some kind of electoral pact is necessary between the two parties if the right is to secure the next election.

There are a number of things going on here, and most of them concern internal Conservative Party matters, rather than a principled stand regarding Britain’s membership of the EU. UKIP’s entry into the mainstream of political debate tells us a great deal about the challenges facing David Cameron in the near future, but to understand them you have to look at the recent past.

Europe is the issue which has torn the Conservative Party apart since the late 1980’s. It was Europe which caused them to depose Margret Thatcher. It was Europe which caused backbenchers to cripple John Major’s government. It was hysterically fanatical anti-European sentiment which was a huge contributing factor in the un-electability of the party under Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard. During the opposition years, the party gave voice to the obsessions of retired army officers in golf club bars in Southern England, namely the evils of Europe, the terror of political correctness and the perils of immigration or as we now call these things, the UKIP policy napkin. The Conservatives were in danger of fading in to irrelevance*.

David Cameron’s great achievement was to drag his sometimes unwilling party back to the centre ground of politics, and make them sound relevant to the concerns of the electorate. In his first conference speech as leader, he exhorted his party to “stop banging on about Europe”, and start talking about what voters care about. As an electoral strategy, this sort of worked. The Conservatives now lead the government (albeit with a Lib Dem fly in the ointment). However, it had two major flaws. The first is that there is still a hard-line Europhobic element in the Conservative Party. The second is that Europe actually exists, and even if you don’t want to talk about it, you have to have a policy towards it, so the party hardliners will still cause chaos.  

When you see right wing commentators arguing that the Conservatives must accommodate UKIP policies in order to prevent their core vote deserting them for Nigel Farage, what they are really trying to do is to undo David Cameron’s modernisation project, and take the Conservatives rightwards. UKIP is a convenient way for them to argue this. If it didn’t exist, they’d just find another reason. Cameron is resisting this because he (rightly) believes this will make the Conservatives unelectable again. The strain is showing. Cameron has been defeated by his own backbenchers in Parliament. There is now a real risk that the UKIP tendency in the Conservative party has a stranglehold over European policy. The risk of being dragged ever rightwards by his own party will haunt Cameron. If it happens, he will share the fate of John Major, and go down in history as being “in office, but not in power”. As for the rest of us, the idea that the single most important element of our foreign policy is being decided by a few euro-sceptic oddballs should be cause for grave concern.

*Cute fact; the hardliners at this time used to call themselves the “rockers”, and they did political battle with the “mods” who wished to reach out to centrist voters. See the excellent “Tory Wars” for details.   

Update (30/11/2012): If you think I'm wrong about the Tory UKIP tendency, have a read of this.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Energy Independence for the USA?

Take a good look around the room you’re sitting in. Anything which is made of plastic is an oil based product. Anything which you did not personally dig out of the ground was transported to you using oil. Like it or not, the global economy is utterly dependent on this resource. A great deal of fuss has been made of the recent International Energy Authority report which argued that by 2020 the USA will be the world’s biggest oil producer, and will be more than self sufficient by 2030. This fuss is justified, but perhaps not quite in the way that people think.

The key thing to understand about oil as a resource is that the oil market is integrated on a global level. This means that instead of thinking about where each individual country gets its supplies from, we need to think about a single global level of supply, and how it matches a single global level of demand. Once we understand this, we can understand the real significance of the US increase in oil production.

It will not mean that the US is insulated from the economic effects of an oil price shock. If, for example, OPEC were to repeat what happened in 1973 and constrict oil production then the US would suffer a dramatic recession, despite theoretically being able to supply itself. In reality the US would be contributing to a global ‘bathtub’ of oil production, which without the OPEC contribution would have shrunk yet would still be expected to meet the same level of global demand. The oil price would rise sharply, causing said global economic crisis.

It follows from this that the USA, and indeed everybody else, will still have an interest in maintaining global supplies. Wars in oil rich Middle Eastern states will still be likely, although the participants may change. In a world where geopolitical power is not just concentrated in the USA (hello China), more countries can be expected to have an interest in a global resource such as oil, and be more willing to act to secure it rather than free riding on the back of US actions as happens now.

So far, the increase in US production looks pretty irrelevant. This would be a foolish view to take. If, as the report predicts, the US is exporting oil by 2030, then that’s a huge source of revenue. A quick glance at the architecture in Qatar is testament to the enormous wealth that oil generates. That won’t go amiss in the USA. The diversification away from the Middle East should also make the global oil market more stable, so OPEC’s influence will be diminished, even if it is not removed. It should be noted that the increase in US supply is a result of shale oil, which is extracted by “fracking”, a process with grave environmental consequences. These, and the climate change which comes with a hydrocarbon economy, will need to be dealt with.

The overall point here is that the USA becoming an oil exporter will be an important geopolitical trend in the coming decades, but to understand its significance we have to break away from the false idea of ‘energy independence’ that has obsessed US leaders since the 1970’s. Oil doesn’t work like that.  

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Next Big Government Disaster

The idea behind the Universal Credit is beguilingly simple. Beginning next year all tax credits, housing benefits, jobseekers allowance and income support will be abolished and replaced with a single scheme, which will act as a top up to what low income people already earn, effectively bringing everybody up to a guaranteed minimum income. It will also reduce the amount of benefit which people lose by taking work, theoretically increasing the incentives to take low paid work. Sounds great, right? It’s got ‘Whitehall debacle’ written all over it.

There are two major reasons for this. Firstly, it depends on a very large and very complicated IT system, and the civil service record of delivering these projects is appalling, as the failed £12.7 billion NHS computer system attests. The IT requirements for the Universal Credit are even more ambitious. It will require real time, monthly data from every single one of the country’s 1.3 million employers, many of whom are not even aware of the scheme. So far, only 1,400 employers have been signed up, and this is supposed to go live within a year. Already the IT firms involved have indicated that they think the timescale is unrealistic, and senior civil servants associated with the project are being removed.

Secondly, any changes to benefits inevitably produce winners and losers, and a scheme of this scale will produce a great many losers. 17% of working households are currently in receipt of tax credits of some form. That’s 3.3 million working households, the kind of people that ministers insist they want to help. I suspect that it won’t take a great deal of investigative journalism to find examples of people who do the right things having their benefit cut by bureaucratic fiat. More to the point this will be happening to people we know, which makes it politically toxic. It’s exactly the sort of bread and butter issue which cuts through to the public, and could damn the government in the way that the 10p tax fiasco damned Gordon Brown.

You could argue that so far all I’ve done is point out that this is a very ambitious scheme being implemented by people with a poor track record, and that with good leadership and management it could work out fine. This scheme is being led by Iain Duncan Smith. I shall leave you with an assessment of his leadership capabilities which was given by an anonymous former colleague of his to Prof Tim Bale, and published in his authoritative history of the modern Conservative Party:

“I can’t think of a good thing to say about Iain. I mean I really can’t. He’s not a bad bloke. He’s not stupid but he couldn’t be a Cabinet minister. He’d be a liability because he’s got these instincts which drag him off without really thinking about things. He’s not very bright. He’s not very loyal either”.

Feeling confident about this yet? 

Monday, 12 November 2012

What The Godfather Can Teach Politicians

Never hate your enemies, it affects your judgement. (Michael Corleone, The Godfather pt 2)

Michael Corleone had a talent which set him apart from every other character in the Godfather films. Unlike his hot-headed brothers and rivals, he had an empathetic understanding of his opponents. This was the gift which let him to rise to the top of his fictional mafia empire, because it allowed him to understand exactly how others thought and reacted to certain situations. It is a gift which is lacking in a great many people who are interested, or indeed active, in politics today.

To understand what I mean, think about the process which causes some on the left to claim that child sex abuse is the result of “a small minority of rich white men”, or some on the right to claim that Obama’s election victory means “bye bye western civilisation”. The root cause of these obviously ridiculous claims is that the people who make them see the world as being divided up in to the good, who agree with them, and the evil, who don’t. I use the terms good and evil deliberately, because those who hold this dualistic world view choose not to engage with their opponent’s arguments, but instead with their motivations. This effect is amplified by groupthink, where many people coalesce around a particular viewpoint, reinforcing each other’s belief in their own virtue and demonising their opponents.

This effect is not confined to the extremist fringes; actually it infects more or less every level of public debate. If a right leaning government decides to cut tax on high earners, a left leaning opposition will cry that they are doing it for the benefit of their wealthy friends. The debate is never conducted in terms of what level of taxation best balances economic growth with state revenue, because the left leaning opposition can never accept that the right leaning government has the national interest at heart, and assumes a sinister motivation instead.

In a similar way, if a left leaning government increases the size of the welfare state, a right leaning opposition will claim that they are trying to create a client state of ‘takers’ who will always vote left to keep their benefits, at the expense of the ‘makers’. It is assumed by the right that those on the left must have a sinister ulterior motive for their actions, and the idea that they simply want to improve the lives of the poor is discounted.   

Michael Corleone would not make this mistake, because he would realise that in the end misunderstanding your opponents in this way is a form of self delusion which can be highly self destructive. Just because you sincerely believe yourself to be right, and your enemies to be evil, does not make it true. If you base your actions on this false premise, the chances are that you will find yourself isolated from more rational people, who can see things more objectively. This is what has happened to the US Republican Party in recent years. So convinced were they of their own essential rightness, contrasted with Obama’s inherent evil, they failed to spot that most people didn’t see things this way. Lest we get too smug, it is also a pretty good explanation of the irrelevance of the British Labour Party during the 1980’s, or indeed the British Conservative Party during the Blair years. It is the curious fate of political movements in these situations that they cast round for some kind of ideologically pure saint to save them, when they would in fact be better off looking for Michael Corleone. In the words of Don Vito himself; “there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults, unless it was to have a friend underestimate your virtues”.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The US Election: The Aftermath

I switched on the news this morning to be greeted by something which resembled the closing sequence from Return of the Jedi. Supposedly impartial journalists beamed from ear to ear as they stood, surrounded by cheering Obama supporters, to tell us that Europe’s favourite US President has won his second term. Guess what, it made me happy too. If I were a US citizen I’d be a registered Democrat, and I’d be even more delighted to hear that rape apologists had been voted out, and that LGBT candidates were now electable. Good times.

The problem is that I fear people of my political persuasion are getting carried away. Having President Obama is far better than having President Romney, of whom it could be said that nothing became his political life as much as the manner in which he left it, but the United States’ political problems remain much the same as they did yesterday, and could possibly get worse before they get better.

Europeans never seem to grasp that the US system is based on the separation of powers between the executive (the President) and the legislature (the House and the Senate). The result of last night’s election is to have a Democratic President and Senate, and a Republican House. Historically this has not been a problem, because agreement was reached across party lines to pass legislation. In recent years, as the US has become more politically polarised, or more accurately as the Republican Party has become more extreme, this has not been possible. Unless a single party controls all three branches of government, getting legislation passed becomes more or less impossible. That is the situation Barack Obama now faces; responsibility without power.

You only have to recall the way that the USA, the richest nation on earth, managed to lose its top credit rating last year, when legislation to raise the legal debt ceiling was held up in a row between the different government branches, to understand the damage this situation can do. It rules out the sort of serious strategic planning, involving both tax rises and spending cuts, which the US needs to implement in order to sort out its long term finances. This has been identified as one of the most serious threats that the US faces, and the result of this election is to postpone any possible solution a little longer.

The other effect of this election is that it is likely to make the Republican Party even more extreme and uncooperative. Mitt Romney, for all his faults, was the best and most moderate candidate in the Republican primaries. Remember Rick Perry? How about Herman Cain? The point is that Romney was selected because it was thought that his moderation was the best way to win the presidency (this is true incidentally, but he wasn’t moderate enough).

The call from the ‘movement conservative’ hardliners will now be that moderation failed, and a clear Republican message is needed. This is already happening. This debate will take place on Fox News and talk radio, and moderate voices will be drowned out. I cannot see any countervailing force, although I’m happy to be corrected on this. Hard-line, ‘tea party’ inspired resistance to everything President Obama does is likely in the near future, especially in the House of Representatives. Just imagine what the negotiations surrounding the so called ‘fiscal cliff’ are going to be like.     

I realise that this has come across as a very pessimistic viewpoint and it’s true, I have serious concerns about Obama’s second term. I don’t want that to overshadow the achievement of him winning it, nor write off a country that I sometimes admire more than my own. But I do think that those of us of a liberal left persuasion should be more focused on facts on the ground rather than the seductions of symbolic victories. Politics is about steering nations, not winning elections.  

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Money Can't Buy You Love...

...but it can buy you influence. I shall begin with an admission which in certain circles is quite controversial. I like capitalism. I like the high standards of living which come with it. I don’t accept that it is oppressive. However, I am not uncritical. I think that we should always be on the lookout for the abuses of the power which are associated with wealth. It is my view that the market functions best when it is regulated by an independent state. The state should be controlled by the voting public alone. We should be very suspicious of market actors exerting or attempting to exert influence over the state.

After the last expenses scandal (which frankly hasn’t been resolved), David Cameron said that corporate lobbying, the practice of companies influencing governments, was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. Sadly, apart from a couple of minor incidents, he was wrong. Corporate lobbying is hard-wired in to our political system, allowing established firms beneficial access to policy makers, at the expense of both consumers and other firms. This should offend people on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, because it is detrimental to both the public at large, and also to the proper functioning of the market. Funny then, how nobody seems to care about it.

Let me give you some publicly available, and I should stress perfectly legal, examples.

Ed Balls is the Shadow Chancellor. That means that if Labour wins the next election, as the opinion polls currently indicate that they will, he is the man that will be in charge of the nation’s economic policy, including all tax law. According to the Register of Members Interests, the huge accountancy firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers supplied him, for free, with “the services of a research assistant/analyst...for 4 days a week on a 22 week secondment from 4 January 2012 to 1 June 2012, value £72,576”.

Why would they do a thing like that? What possible interest could an accountancy firm have in the politician who could end up writing tax law?

Let’s take a different example. William Hague is the Foreign Secretary. He is in charge of Britain’s network of embassies across the globe. He received a political donation of “£6,545.90, for reception” from a company called Project Associates UK Ltd. A glance at this company’s website tells us that they are a PR firm which governments across the world can hire to help them communicate with the press and NGOs.

Do companies just give out four figure donations without expecting anything in return? Because if so, I’d like some of that. What was being brought here? Why would a company specialising in international governmental PR make a personal donation to the Foreign Secretary?

The idea of a company making a political donation is ridiculous. A person can have political beliefs, and they can choose to donate to a politician if they agree with them. Companies are not sentient beings. They cannot believe in things. A company director cannot just spend company money on whatever they want; the spending legally has to be in the interests of the company. But if a donation is in the interest of the company, then the company is buying influence over the state. As I've tried to show you, that’s not OK, regardless of your politics.  

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Case For Trident

The debate around whether the UK’s submarine based nuclear deterrent Trident should be renewed is sinking to the level of national embarrassment. The ‘no’ camp claim that nuclear weapons have no use in the post cold war era, while those in favour of renewing it pretend that it is just some kind of hi-tech make work scheme. In the interests of public service, I’m going to attempt to make a serious case for the renewal of Trident. Feel free to argue.

The key thing to understand is that nuclear weapons are tools of foreign policy, not weapons of war. It has long been accepted that a thermonuclear exchange would so damage the participants that no possible strategic objective could justify it. It follows that no state will risk facing that threat.

However with or without nuclear weapons, states do face existential threats, principally from more powerful states. This is the story of human history, the strong dominating the weak. It is here that the hydrogen bomb gains its diplomatic utility. In recent years, the states that have gone nuclear, or can reasonably be said to have attempted it all have one thing in common. They have been directly threatened by a state which they have no conventional means of resisting. Nuclear weapons are the only serious response to these threats that these weak states can ever have. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq serves as a reminder of the price of not possessing weapons of mass destruction.

How does this affect the UK? After all, we are a member of NATO and the EU. Diplomatically, are we not the ‘transatlantic bridge’, an integral part of the international community which guarantees a world free of great power conflict? Frankly, this is a myopically complacent view, which confuses a fluke historical circumstance whose time is coming to a close with a serious analysis of foreign affairs.

Firstly, and most obviously, the EU is splitting in two, with the core Euro-zone edging ever closer towards being a country, and everyone else left outside. For better or for worse, we are on the outside. This in turn undermines the UK’s ‘transatlantic bridge’ role. If the USA want someone to represent their views on the continent, it will be someone inside the core Europe group, not a spectator. Indeed, as the US pivots towards Asia, where global power is increasingly heading, its interest in maintaining NATO will wane. British foreign policy, such as it is, is based on the idea that the UK is a core part of an imagined ‘West’ which is made up of developed, democratic and dominant states. That world is passing. If current trends continue, the UK will find itself a small, isolated country in a world dominated by the new superpowers; Russia, China, India, the USA and who knows, even the core EU.

The Trident program is a long term commitment. It would mean that Britain will maintain nuclear weapons until the 2040’s. If current trends continue, by that time Trident could be one of the only cards Britain holds to prevent its domination by these stronger states. In essence, the UK would use its nuclear weapons to guarantee its diplomatic independence in the way that Pakistan does today. That is the value of Trident, and that is why it should be renewed.

The pessimistic (and highly speculative) tone of this piece is deliberately designed as a riposte to the “the cold war is over, we all live in peace and harmony” argument. History does not end, however agreeable we might find the status quo. The UK is a declining country, with little capacity to affect world events. It would be wise to start planning our foreign policy with this fact in mind.  

Monday, 29 October 2012

Racism in Football-The Ugly Game

Another weekend of sport has ended in an ugly mess, as professional football continues in its quest to prove that the twenty first century is something which only happened to other people. After having two players sent off in the game against Manchester United, Chelsea have lodged a complaint against the referee Mark Clattenburg, accusing him of using racist language against one of their players.

This is a very serious allegation and, as with all accusations of racism, it must be treated as such. Clattenburg, who was in constant radio contact with the other officials during the game, has indicated that he wishes a full investigation into the matter, and has the support of the referees union in doing so.

This can only end in one of two ways. If he is found guilty, then Clattenburg will rightly never work as a referee again. His position of impartial authority would have been irretrievably compromised. Alternatively, if the allegation is discovered to be malicious, then Chelsea FC will have wrought terrible damage on the professional game.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘Chelsea FC will have wrought even more terrible damage’. After all their captain, John Terry, was watching these events from the stand, where he was sitting out his ludicrously lenient four match ban for describing Anton Ferdinand as a “fucking black cunt”. Keenly aware of this injustice, Chelsea fans helpfully jeered Ferdinand’s brother Rio throughout yesterdays match, presumably expressing their displeasure that his relative could dare point out that their captain was a bigot.

The football authorities have impressed nobody with their peerless indifference to racism in the game. Their ‘Kick It Out’ campaign, which is supposed to address the issue, has been reduced to little more than a series of platitudes on T-shirts. They mean so much that John Terry is happy to support them. Tellingly, the Ferdinand brothers were less willing.

This stuff matters. Those who say that problems in football only reflect problems in society should get out more. Society has changed. We don’t go to minstrel shows anymore. Adult comedians who trade in offence and shock are willing to go to court to prove that they are not racists. We in society decided that racism damaged us all some time ago, and furthermore decided to act on our decision. It seems football didn’t get the memo.

Those who run football should have a think about how precarious their position actually is. The average age of a fan in their stadiums is 43, because clubs have priced the younger fans out. The future of professional football as a mass spectator sport, and all the lucrative opportunities those spectators represent, is dependent on young people falling in love with the game as they see it on TV. That’s not going to happen if it looks like a re-run of a 1970’s Bernard Manning comedy routine. Kids today, to their great credit, just aren’t into that stuff. Football needs to catch up, fast.    

Friday, 26 October 2012

Jobs for the Boys

For observers of politics, who spend our days gazing into the torrent of asinine waffle that swamps the nation into apathetic submission, there occasionally pops up a statement that shakes us out of the stupor, a dissonance which reveals a truth that we know should have been hidden. It occurs to me that our leader’s somewhat oxymoronic claim that he “wants to spread privilege” is one such statement.

Leaving aside the idiotic phrasing, he was attempting to say that through improving the quality of the school system, every child would have the same type of opportunities that he had. This is indeed a noble aim, but it is also rather disingenuous, as we shall see.

Cameron is trying to convince you that his privilege was to attend Eton, the fabulously expensive private school, and that the education he received there set him up for life. I would imagine it certainly helped, but if you really want to get on in this country, like he did, you need more than that.

The key to a great career is the ‘foot in the door’ job, the one you take after you finish your education, the one that gives you the experience to begin climbing the greasy pole. This is where meritocracy ends and where plutocracy begins, because unless you can afford to work for free, then you don’t get this first job. You might as well not have bothered with all that education. Indeed you might look at the fees you paid for it and wonder if you hadn’t been cheated.

Even money is not enough for the great internships. To get one of these, not only must you be able to work for free, you must also have powerful family connections. Here is where we see Cameron’s true privilege. His internship, at Conservative Central Office, was guaranteed by a phone call from his relatives at Buckingham Palace. That’s how he got on in life. Is this a privilege he wants to ‘spread’? Hell no. Not only does he “accept” that unpaid internships are part of the “modern world”, he is “intensely relaxed” about it. He even boasts about arranging them for his friend’s children. Perhaps that is what spreading privilege really means; spreading it around your own social circle.

If you want to see the effect of excluding the poor and the non-connected from positions of influence, look no further than to our very own House of Commons. To show that this is about the whole British establishment, and not just Cameron’s Conservatives, I’ll examine the Parliamentary Labour Party. At the time of the 2010 general election, the party had between 150,000 and 193,000 members, from which it could select its candidates. Out of the 258 MP’s it managed to get elected, there were two married couples (Ed Balls to Yvette Cooper, and Jack Dromey to Harriet Harman) and three sets of siblings (the Milibands, the Eagles and the Vazs). The party of working people also managed to maintain the hereditary principle with Anas Sarwar, MP for Glasgow Central succeeding his father. Do you think all this is coincidence? No. It is the result of connection and privilege at work. It’s basically corruption, and it stinks.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Classic Political Lies and Deceptions

You may have detected a certain cynicism regarding the politicians who thrive in the modern age creeping in to this blog. Cynicism about politics is as old as politics itself as, I would argue, are the lies, deceptions and empty sloganeering that generate it. In this post, I’m going to introduce you to three types of political deception, and give examples, both historical and modern, of the timeless nature of political bullshit.

The Meaningless Statement

The idea here is to sound like you mean something which people want, while in reality not committing yourself to anything which might require action. This type of deception is very easy to spot if you remember one simple rule; to discover if a political statement has meaning, see if anybody is arguing for its opposite. If not, the person who made the original statement is saying nothing. A classic modern example is the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to “hardwire fairness” in to British society. Reverse the statement and we find that nobody is promising to increase unfairness, thus the original Lib Dem statement is meaningless.

A meaningless statement can still be useful. Nelson’s “England expects that every man will do his duty” was apparently inspiring at Trafalgar. Yet no sailor was considering taking the afternoon off. The meaningless statement was still a useful rhetorical device.

A quick postscript to this. Today (22/10/2012) we learn that David Cameron is announcing his 'Tough but Intelligent' crime policy. This is presumably in opposition to all those who argue that criminal justice policy should be 'Soft but Stupid'.

The Double Meaning

Sometimes a politician has to satisfy two groups of people, who want different things, simultaneously. Here, the trick is to find a form of words which can be taken to mean whatever anybody chooses to read in to them, and deliver them with such conviction that both audiences assume that you are talking to them. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ theme to his conference was a classic of the kind. The left, including his trade union backers, assumed he meant that he was going to take on the elites that are governing the country and make the voice of ordinary people heard. The right, including many Blairites in his own party, assumed he meant that he would not try to fight some kind of class war, and avoid pitting different groups against each other.

Historically, no example of this comes close to that of Richard the 2nd. Faced with an army of peasants demanding a serious change in the social order, he rode out and told them “you shall have no captain but me”. The peasants thought the king meant that he was joining their cause. To put it mildly, they were wrong. 

The most interesting thing about this deception is that the person using it knows that it will be uncovered as soon as they actually do anything, because the act of doing something will disappoint one side. It will be interesting to see who Mr Miliband eventually decides to disappoint.

The Appeal to an Unarguable Force

During medieval times, huge armies of Christian crusaders wrought devastation and bloodshed in the holy land, slaughtering thousands of innocent men, women and children. They did so because the Pope had told them that God wanted them to do this. How could God be wrong?

An interesting modern take on this argument was provided by David Cameron, when he justified his use of the EU veto he exercised last year by saying he was acting in the “national interest”. In this case, just as the Pope gets to say what is the word of God, so the Prime Minister got to tell us what the “national interest” consisted of. The argument is strong because in both cases you cannot argue with the unarguable force; God and the national interest must always be respected and so, by convenient extension, must their messenger. It’s amazing how useful this 'logic' has proved to those in authority over the ages.    

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A Self Administered Parliamentary Blowjob

Guys, if you could blow yourselves, ladies, you'd be in this room alone right now. Watching an empty stage” (Bill Hicks). Thus the great comedian pithily summed up the tragedy of the male condition. This tragedy is almost universal. Almost, but not quite. For there is an exception to every rule, and the exception to this rule is to be found in what we, perhaps ironically, describe as our ruling class, in particular the collective body that is Parliament at Prime Ministers Questions. If ever an act resembled self-fellatio, then what happened here at twelve noon today was it.

The day was autumnal, and a cold wind blew through the UK.  The house gathered in its private chamber, warm and secure, and paid its customary lip service to the events of the outside world. Tributes to the fallen were echoed around the room, without thought to the reasons why they had gone. To consider that would be to distract from the task at hand, which was to be entirely self focused. Today was the time for the house to be alone with itself, to revel in its own bonhomie and tribal affections. The dark complexities of the twenty first century could be safely locked outside.

Setting the mood, as if dimming the lights, Mr Miliband rose to his feet and gently probed the Prime Minister about the latest unemployment statistics. The house emitted its customary low moan as he was equally gently rebuffed. This was not the reason they had come here. A muted statistical duel did not provide the satisfaction they so obviously collectively craved and desired. But they held on. They knew the main event was coming.

Sure enough, with his third question, straining his rhetoric as far as it would go, Mr Miliband found the spot. How many police officers have gone since the last election? The moan of the house grew to a crescendo. This was it. This was why they were here. Not, of course to talk about the number of police on the streets. Who cares about that? The word ‘police’ could only mean one thing. The house was to debate Andrew Mitchell’s words to her majesty’s constabulary. It was for this moment that the members had gathered themselves together from all corners of the kingdom. This was to be the release that they all so desperately needed.

Nervously rising to the despatch box, the Prime Minister composed himself with some statements about his willingness to ‘take difficult decisions’, causing his own side to cheer more loudly, in anticipation of what was to come. The tension was palpable, Miliband raising it further with some mindless ‘I’d hoped for a straight answer’ tease. Finally, he struck home; “it’s a night in the cells for the plebs, a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip” he roared. The noise was deafening, as the tension that had been building in the house for weeks was released, the cheers and the jeers combining in a cacophony of self congratulation. This was why they were elected. This was the very essence of the Mother of all Parliaments, alone with itself, away from the grim reality of the outside world. Prostrate before its own desire to feature on the ten o’clock news. Less than ten minutes in to the session, and all that they had wanted was done.

As always, after the high came the low, the petite mort. It was tolerated as it always is, as the price of the leaders duel. Backbench questions about murdered children and injured servicemen were answered with the usual calm courtesy. At times it looked like things could once again become memorable, the house raising its excitement levels at the thought of the Prime Minister’s salacious emails with a former journalist, but in the end they knew that the main event had been and gone for another week.

Outside the wind and the cold drew in ever closer.