Monday, 30 May 2016

Brexit - the gift that keeps on giving

A couple of months ago, I set out a view that the real tragedy of the European referendum was that it was being conducted as a proxy war for the Tory succession.  As the debate has gone on (and on) there is very little reason to change this view.  It is a tragedy that the level of debate in this country has been debased to allow the egotism of Nadine Dorries to be projected into the public domain once more.  For those of us who are of a certain age, the echoes of the efforts of the headbanging right to bring down John Major are irresistible.

The standard of debate has been depressingly banal.  Partly this is the consequences of the media believing that the public are incapable of engaging with any difficult concepts without interpretation or the interpolation of some ego-driven commentator, and also a deliberate ploy from those who would rather not have their arguments held up to scrutiny.  There is a pattern where an argument for remaining in the EU, often strongly evidenced and based around reputable organisations is dismissed by the leave campaigners with seldom even an effort on the part of their interlocutor to explore whether their critique has any foundation.

To be sceptical about Europe is to want to remain.  The binary pseudo-choice being offered by the leave campaign is not sceptical, it is not rational and it is self-evidently against the national interest.  Their more deranged fellow-travellers on the right are happy enough to resort to social media to cry "traitor" in the direction of the remain campaign, but they are the real rats and racists, scuttling around in the half-light without the capability of engagement with the possibility of a diverse, nuanced remain campaign which is united behind the need to stay, but not with the likely future direction of the European Union.

Probing the leave campaign's arguments provides scant evidence of anything beyond the faux nostalgia peddled by UKIP for when Britain was "great" or an assertion that everything will be in some way better, isolated economically and politically from our current allies both within the EU and beyond.  Where there is intelligent life, for example from the left and green perspective that bemoans some of the EU's activity, this is drowned out beneath a nasty xenophobia and a knee-jerk dismissal of the little people who dare to question their betters.  There are respectable arguments for opposing some or all EU manifestations, but the ragbag of cretinism does not permit their articulation.

Besides, many of these arguments are best carried out in the context of whether the UK would be better off fighting a corner from within the EU or pressed up against the window, watching and self-deluding.  Nobody in the main remain campaign has set out a clear articulation that the current EU model is not the only way forward, but the emergence of other views and organisations does at least create the possibility for debate.  In the end, staying in is necessary to even contemplate influencing the reform of an institution where an engaged, committed UK would find allies.

The clinching argument has to be that leaving now is a one-off choice.  If, at some unspecified date in the future, national interest reverted to being part of the organisation, this would not be either credible or feasible.  Yet if there is no reform and no progress within the EU then there is the possibility that the UK, or even a group of like-minded members, could consider its position a decade or two hence.  The stupidity of the Brexit campaign is in not recognising that the damage their hubris could inflict would not be retrievable - and since they cannot even provide the basis of a post-EU Britain (even at a high level outline) with any degree of intellectual credibility, they deserve all the abuse that they claim is being dished out to them.

This brings me to the outbreak of civil war within the Tory party.  This weekend has seen the far right not merely waving their rattles but throwing them out of the pram.  To watch the traitors and bastards queueing up to settle scores with Cameron would be amusing if the consequences of their vanity and delusion would not be so great for the rest of us, collateral damage in the war of warped egos.  What some of them want is the kind of rapprochement between UKIP and the Tory right which would split the party - and which risks self-immolation as part of the Johnson preening machine.  The anachronistic electoral system may well see to that.

An encouraging sign, maybe, that the bloodbath post-referendum will be internal to the Tories, but when viewed from the wider perspective this is short-term schadenfreude.  Cameron has delivered all that the bastards claimed they wanted, but they're still out for his blood.  The paralysis and toxic demise of the Tory party is a risk that could unbalance politics yet further - there is now a challenge for the centre and left of politics to coalesce in such a way that the saner and more long-term Tories can accept and merge into.  The bitter hinterlands are best left to those whose egomania is matched by their inability to accept that they could ever be wrong - and it is a sincerely-held hope that their racism and two-faced lies are given the two fingers that they deserve.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Why decent Tories should plan for the future

For the first time in an increasingly-lengthy life, I am beginning to experience sympathy for some parts of the Conservative Party.  Whatever one's personal beliefs the world would be a much more boring place were it to be a mirror-image, uncritical and unchallenged.  Two months ago, I thought that the Tory party's internal wrangling around the European referendum could be the greatest challenge to its intellectual and political cohesion in the best part of 150 years.  Now I am convinced that this is the case.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the personal venom and toxicity with which the Leave campaign have conducted their manoeuvrings should make it impossible for the legitimate centre-right to have anything to do with them.  With the hopeful outcome of a reasonably-decisive Remain vote, there is a challenge for the Tories to regenerate as a party where the fringe and the ultra-right are either marginalised, slapped down or excluded.  Some may  do this for themselves - on the basis of the evidence to date they cannot accept that there are sincerely-held and evidence-based positions that can be held without the need for personal abuse.

The obloquy heaped on Cameron and the majority, let it not be forgotten, of his Cabinet would, were it to be replicated within Corbyn's Labour, be front-page news around leadership coup.  The diluted Blairite Progress campaign, with its spearhead of such luminaries as Yvette Cooper, is hardly a match on the centre-left for the parade of dysfunctional lunacy that can be identified on the far right: Gove, Patel, Duncan Smith, Lawson, Lamont, Minford, Grayling all spring to mind before you get to the extreme cesspool in which Johnson and his cronies inhabit.

Even without the referendum, there should be pause for thought in the Tory party around how it conducts itself.  Cameron's aim was to detoxify the brand - a technique which is now at its most successful in Scotland.  Contrast this with the odious and despicable campaign fought in London by and on behalf of Goldsmith, who applied an ever more amoral universe that now underpins the lunatic, sociopathic outbursts of his predecessor as Tory candidate.  The relegitimisation of a party fighting on the centre-right in Scotland would have been all the more motivational had it not been eclipsed by a racist, negative campaign which, fortunately, demonstrated that the electorate's response to dog-whistles is not invariably that of a somewhat retarded poodle.

The scope for Tory revival will largely be defined by the referendum outcome, and the potential for political realignment elsewhere.  A Tory schism, with the diehards and the senile stomping off into an electoral dance of death with the vestigial Kippers, could, whatever the effects of boundary changes, precipitate the kind of right-wing meltdown that afflicted Labour in 1983.  Perhaps the more far-sighted on the centre-right will then realise that an electoral system designed for two parties will produce ever more perverse and illegitimate results.

There is no clear direction for post-referendum politics, whatever the outcome.  Cameron will, one hopes, be emboldened to settle scores with the kind of ruthlessness that his internal critics are now reserving for him.  Excluding the destabilising, selfish and hypocritical from the mainstream should be the objective of all those who want to avoid the continued stigmatising of all Tories as heartless grasping fools.  I appreciate that some readers may disagree that this is a desirable outcome, but debating with rational humans is preferable to attempting to rebut and discredit the hard right whose entitlement is matched only by their ignorance.

A shift of a right-wing party back towards the centre can only be welcomed, if only to refocus politics.  For those of us of a social liberal persuasion it is a precondition for proper dialogue, especially for those of us who also consider that rolling back pseudo-liberal economic cargo cults is an even more important component of the future political landscape, where there is room to discuss issues from a long-term, environmentally- and socially-sustainable standpoint.  If the lunatics capture the Tories, then the margins become the party's fate.  Extremism is already on the march - there is a potential chance for those Tories who are their party's electoral mainstream to at least reclaim the right to dialogue.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Hitler, Boris and the unflattering parallels

The meretricious mountebank is at it again.  In what looks suspiciously like another attempt to capture front pages without thought of tomorrow (pace the Crosby/Goldsmith unsuccessful smear on Sadiq Khan) the former Mayor of London, part-time MP and full-time posturing hypocrite Alexander (Boris) Johnson has played the same card that his rubber-necking cheerleaders condemned Ken Livingstone with savage glee for - introducing the Nazis into British political discourse.

There is a continuum of blatant lunacy that runs from Johnson through UKIP to Trump to David Icke, all of whom would be perfectly prepared to believe in the malevolence of giant green lizards or the veracity of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" if they thought that it might deliver electoral advantage or notoriety.  This is the act of a desperado whose amorality and self-seeking sociopathy has been evident for at least thirty years, but also the act of someone whose sense of moral obligation would make bubonic plague seem like a socially-desirable outcome.

What has become clear in the last week is that any discussion or argument on the basis of evidence will be met with knee-jerk stupidity from the more volatile end of the Brexit market.  For everyone (left or right) with a rational argument, with which it is possible to disagree and even engage with, there will be a media-led conflation of petty demagoguery and misinformation.  The parallels with German history in the run-up to 1933 would be easy to draw, with Johnson's seemingly respectable, buffoonish veneer being the analogue to the suckering of the German conservatives into signing away civic rights.  The end-game of the destruction of large parts of Germany, Europe and the ushering in of the Cold War should be even more frightening.

Johnson is a dangerous charlatan.  As with Trump, he attempts to articulate an anti-politics posture while in reality being an autocrat and a menace to the wider community.  To be supported as the next Prime Minister by Nigel Farage is not exactly reassuring - but not something he has a problem with.  However, deprived of his platform in London, he is now coming across as the kind of nutter with whom respectable discourse is becoming impossible.  A cross, perhaps, between Hitler and Enoch Powell?

The problem for the Brexit camp is now that their campaign is defined by shrillness and a refusal to engage with the position of those who wish to remain that they will look increasingly hysterical.  They do not allow for a more radical reimagining of Europe, nor do they appear to be able to distinguish between lies, myth and the hinterlands of reality that intrude in the more sensible wing of their campaign.  To disagree with the evidence put forward is their right, but they would have a vestige of credibility if they were able to postulate an alternative perspective that had even a tenuous grip on reality.

In promising an unspecified better tomorrow, where the UK is purged of the "other" in the form of immigrants, and in blaming them for the woes bequeathed by misguided past policy, the Brexit campaign and Johnson in particular are playing a dangerous and desperate game.  Substitute any defined group for "immigrants" and the poisonous lunacy becomes clear.  The damage that they are doing to a civilised and humane society is immeasurable, for their own gain.  Standing up to this tendency is something that should unite those on both sides of the argument who aspire to be reasonable members of the human race.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Budget 2020 - 'twas the year after Brexit

I seem to have been transported into a dystopian future:

March 2020: after a marginal vote to leave the EU, it is the last Budget before a General Election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act.  Opposition members have deliberately not toppled the minority administration led by Boris Johnson, reckoning that the carnage wrought by the economic and social meltdown triggered is a daily reminder of the understatement that the Remain campaign's diluted "Project Fear" and their respect for honesty, evidence and debate failed to communicate to the electorate.

A year after the UK seceded from the EU, it has no bilateral trading deals in place with any major economic power.  The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in 2016, again on a contested ballot, resulted in a world trade war with protectionism rife across the globe.  This, coupled with the reduction in UK and EU economic activity triggered by the referendum, resulted in further crises within the remaining EU membership, and the collapse of the Italian banking sector in 2017 was the trigger for siege economies across the west.  With defaults and economic depression endemic across Europe, the UK's problems are, surprisingly, relatively benign.

After three years of recession, where around 12% has been wiped off GDP, the forecasts for Michael Gove's final Budget are more benign.  Against a 3% decline in 2019, the consensus amongst economists is that the UK's decline in 2020 will be around 1%, and that growth might return, sluggishly in 2022.  Assuming that long-term, pre-Brexit growth rates are achievable, the productive output of the economy will reach the same level as 2016 by 2032, although with continued population growth, overall income per capita will not recover until 2035.

The impact of UK exit was an immediate devaluation of sterling by around 10%.  This translated into an increase in inflation to 4%, which required an immediate increase in interest rates despite the difficulties that firms and households now found themselves in.  Manufacturing, already in recession before the referendum vote, is now at 15% below pre-Brexit levels.  Whereas in previous recessions, the service sector took up some of the slack, the relocation of financial services and the impact of the global crash has resulted in significant reductions in high-end services and London being eclipsed as a financial centre by Frankfurt.  Where new jobs have been created they have been low-paid, and therefore consumer spending has nose-dived.

To finance a recession where two million jobs have been lost, partly as a direct result of leaving the EU but mostly as a consequence of the financial crash, taxation has had to be increased and services further reduced.  The standard rate of income tax has been raised to 30p, and the higher-rate to 60p, with thresholds reduced accordingly.  Increases to VAT and excise duties also fuelled inflation, which is now running at around 7%.  Nominal wages are growing around 3%, which with tax increases means that the average household has suffered an annual reduction of around 10% in its real spending  power.

Despite pledges, Gove has had to increase corporation tax and reduce the number of exemptions.  This has resulted in investment plummeting to levels not seen since the early 1930s, and consequential uncompetitiveness.  With tariff walls erected, and no immediate prospect of negotiating with an isolationist US, China (suffering from the global crash) or an inwardly-focused EU, British exports have fallen off a cliff.  Gove will be forced to choose between increasing tariffs on imported goods, which will fuel inflation and further declines in living standards, or increasing the budget deficit, which will drive up interest rates.

Against this economic background, the next General Election is likely to be fought on separatist lines.  Large parts of the UK voted strongly to remain in the EU, and there is popular resentment fuelled by Scottish and Welsh nationalism, as well as the collapse of the London economy.  The only budget to be protected is that for public order and domestic military spending, despite warnings that if the UK cannot sustain its defence expenditure it could well be expelled from NATO.  Riots, food shortages and unemployment are making the UK ungovernable.

This may be hyperbolic, and based around the premise that there are a number of external events that could trigger global economic turmoil.  The Brexit advocates have not at any stage been able to provide a convincing story as to how the UK would be better able to be buffered from one major shock, and a combination of more than one could knock the economy and society off-course.  As we have seen today there are no risk-free routes forward, and the experience of history demonstrates that economists, like Generals, are always fighting the last war.  Over the next six weeks, I would like to see the remain campaign push the glib and ignorant into answering questions.

Remaining does not imply a rosy path to the future.  It does, at least, reduce the risks both to the economy and, most importantly, to people's security.  An economic meltdown, which Brexit could facilitate, would make the 1920s and 1930s look like relative picnics, especially given the weakness of the current social and economic fabric.  The irresponsibility of playing with fire should be a constant charge whenever the swivel-eyed attempt to gloss over their sham and hypocritical lack of coherence and credibility.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Brexit - how much longer until peak moron?

There is an unappealing prospect over the coming weeks.  What should be an informed debate about the future role of a peripheral power in the 21st century, and what the most appropriate strategy should be to secure the best interests of the citizenry, has already degenerated into a risible example of why the referendum is not the appropriate means of securing an informed resolution of thorny issues.

Reducing complexity into a binary, pre-defined choice, encourages both sides of the argument into shrill, sound-bite pronouncements, and a failure to acknowledge that there is nuance and judgement to be exercised, both now and in the future.  Instead it becomes a circus of cretinism, especially where the case for one side has no hard evidence, merely a jingoistic dog-whistle, manipulated by a small coterie of hypocrites whose public pronouncements bear as much relationship to their desired outcome as Tony Blair does to the pursuit of a Christian, moralistic polity.

It is hilarious to watch the tumbrils in a ritual dance.  The same people who, last year, were making subliminal anti-semitic assaults on Ed Miliband's awkwardness around a bacon sandwich, have now moved on from a systematic attempt to destabilise Labour by using the obverse slur, will now be lining up in favour of the isolationist camp.  They will doubtless find it necessary to peddle lies, distortion and, where necessary, personal attacks.  A wounded animal without rationality, for example  the ex-Mayor of London, will be extremely vicious.  A thwarted toddler should be treated as such

The flexible posturing of the exit campaign is fascinating.  At the first attempt they assailed Obama for pointing out that the UK would be a less important trading partner than the EU as a whole, and that any isolationist deal would hardly be top priority for the US.  The current proposals for the EU-US deal are not attractive, and they may not even go through - which has resulted in some of the sputum-fuelled foaming to assail this situation.  Yet at the same time they peddle the myth that the UK on its own would be better-placed to secure a more desirable outcome.  This is not just a lie, it is a deliberately-constructed attempt to obfuscate and undermine the debate by diversionary tactics.

Not that one would expect consistency from a group of opportunist parasites.  The reality is that the interests of the UK as a whole cannot be served either outside the EU or by pursuing an economic and diplomatic policy that resembles North Korea's.  A rogue nuclear state is not an attractive option, and the assumption that the UK would be welcome back into whichever global and regional groupings it wished to endorse should be held up to the scrutiny it deserves - and then debunked.  The myths and "what if" scenarios being put out are not just transparent, they are non-existent.

The remain camp need to break out of their self-imposed constraint of not exploiting the weakness of the exit campaign.  For the UKIP sugar daddy to assert that the loss of around 20% of household income would be a price worth paying for a dubious notion of sovereignty is a fatal hole in their strategy - as their self-defined sovereignty implies participation in supra-national arrangements where the UK would have either no say or much more limited say over their content, even this is the kind of sub-literate mythology that should be paraded.  Failure to articulate any positive or even consistent strategy to manage the transition from awkward partner to international pariah should be at the centre of the charge sheet that many of the Brexiters' high-profile cheerleaders are in fact traitors to their own declared cause.

The European Union is not perfect, nor is it unreformable.  The existing structures and priorities can and must be shifted, but that can really only be achieved from within and by being a rational and engaged partner.  It will continue to exist in some form, and the risks attached to being a marginal nation which has attempted to destroy a social and economic are large and unquantifiable.  A pure microeconomic reductionism suggests that the residual EU might wish to trade with the UK, but the limits of such a worldview are clear and have many more historical precedents than the ignorant, uneducated plutocrats would wish us to consider.

Every time that there is a rational argument put forward for the remain campaign, the exit campaigners have to find someone, no matter how swivel-eyed, peripheral or senile, with apparent experience of the argument.  Thus the resurrection of the pustular "economist" Patrick Minford, alongside seven others whose notability is mostly for their rapacity than their economic literacy and credibility, apparently destroyed the case for membership.  There are always contrarians (otherwise the world would be a very dull place), but the intellectual honesty and rigour required for a debate is beyond them - and as usual they will be reduced to their playground chant of "Project Fear" whenever their amoral and incoherent bletherings are given a ritual demolition.

What is even more amusing is that most of the Brexit baloney is being fed from the right, but there are fellow-travellers on the left who believe that leaving the EU will provide the springboard for the development of a workers' state.  Apparently the EU is the tool of big business, and its role in providing minimal social coherence and protection against multinationals could be replicated in an environment where most of those bank-rolling the Brexit campaigns would be looking to unravel both EU and UK social security in the name of unfettered profit.  Conflating the EU with immigration is both absurd and dangerous, but this appears to be the rationale of many otherwise sane people on the left.  If they think that the EU dilutes the wages and conditions of British workers, they will be in for a shock of their lives where they are at the mercy of a combination of 19th century social attitudes with a 21st century developing nation approach to labour relations.

Tempting fate, the next few weeks are likely to be centred on more of the same rather than any new arguments.  For the remain campaign, the challenge is to continue to play up the risks and inconsistencies while presenting a coherent narrative of post-referendum change.  A vision for the future of the EU is as important as demolishing the hubris of the post-Brexit delusions being peddled by the cretinous tendency.  Easy enough to go for the easy targets of Trump, Putin, Lawson, Redwood and Johnson as advocates of British self-immolation, but also to explain that being in the EU is both less risky and more productive in shaping the future.

Now that the immediate fun of the electoral cycle is out of the way, the idiocy of politics by referendum dictates a challenge to the belief that the right outcome can be delivered by argument alone.  The leave campaigners have demonstrated no proof of their assertions, and their "right to reply" to remain messages means that they can continue to pass off lies and distortions both in response to challenge and as a means of distraction from their lack of coherence.  The remain campaign has to challenge this at the same time as making it clear that changing the status quo is only achieved by being inside the tent, rather than pretending to be a Great Power.  The exit lie is based around nostalgia for an age that never existed, and can never be created.

Cold comfort, but at least in seven weeks this whole process will be over.  Maintaining interest will be difficult, and managing blood pressure in the face of monumental stupidity even harder.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Exploding hubris - Sturgeon, Goldsmith and a broken system

The 2016 electoral aftermath demonstrates the continued requirement for constitutional change over much of the UK's electoral landscape.  There is much mulling-over to be carried out, and much spin to be excised.  For no party was it either a disaster or an unmitigated triumph, and the smarter observer with an analytical tendency will wait until the outcome of the European referendum before even starting to offer prognoses for the future.

It was perhaps symbolic that election day headlines included a shambles in the London Borough of Barnet.  Having chronicled its various foibles, it was unsurprising that the incompetence of its outsourced IT and the hubris and arrogance of its leaders and officers would result in not merely minor polling irregularities but a situation where, in a closer contest, the entire legitimacy of the electoral process would have been called into account.  

Richard Cornelius, the Council's out-of-touch, extremist leader, and Andrew Travers, a faceless, unaccountable Chief Executive and Returning Officer, should be held culpable for allowing a farce to occur on their watch.  Sadly, these days, the culture is not of responsibility and personal integrity, and there is bound to be a whitewash that blames a minor official and leaves those who take maximum snoutage for their alleged and undemonstrated leadership skills continuing to profit off the taxpayer, while never accepting that they should carry the can for their own organisation.  There are several words for them, mostly involving language that would be unparliamentary.

This was a backdrop to the London Mayoral contest.  A week ago I speculated that the vile smearing attempt by Goldsmith was the last throw of the dice, and so it proved.  What was disgusting was the lining-up of a number of senior Tories to condemn their own campaign only after the safety of the polls closing, which will do nothing for the efforts made by more genuine Tories to position their party as a reasonable centre-right force.  Meanwhile the architect of the campaign, or at least the puppet-master, was receiving a knighthood, demeaning an already-compromised honour system.  Arise Sir Lynton, from the sewer to the gutter.

What was satisfying, though, was that this hysterical demonising failed to work, and the election of Sadiq Khan should be seen in the context of popular disgust at the way in which shady individuals consider politics to be a matter of purchase rather than persuasion.  Whatever Khan's merits or demerits are will be demonstrated in the months to come, but his dignity in the face of the most repugnant assault from the Goldsmith camp and the amplified, if not manufactured, side-issues on his own side, will provide at least some goodwill.

In Scotland, the campaign narrative had been focused on the near-inevitability of an SNP majority.  Given that the electoral system has been designed to be proportional, the likelihood of this was never as certain as the narrative indicated.  The success of the SNP's appeal in the 2015 General Election was to hold the Tories accountable, and in 2016 for Scotland this was not quite such a strong force.  Labour's implosion needs to be seen in this context, but the narrative around Tory success needs to be tempered by the fact that they secured less than a quarter of the vote, and that was on the basis of a deliberate distancing from the current Westminster administration.

Labour's bind continues.  Corbyn's narrative is not working universally, although the level of obloquy has not given them much chance of success given the attempt to play the man not the policy.  They have not made progress in areas where they should be doing well, and in bellwether areas have gone backwards.  Yet success in London and maintaining a local government lead in southern English cities demonstrates that the situation is much more fluid than the idiot media's inability to count beyond a two-party national system can normally encompass.

Pluralist politics are here to stay, and this needs to be welcomed.  In Scotland and Wales, the electoral systems reflect this and provide space for electoral preferences beyond the tactical.  For both Labour and Tories, the long-term reality is that their support is fragmenting and that the traditional party boundaries are much more fluid.  If they wake up to this, and it will probably be Labour first, then constitutional reform may become the key issue that could unite a broad group of voters and parties after 2020.  The issue will not go away, irrespective of the referendum.

Much more thinking is needed, as the system continues to demonstrate an inability to deliver a representative or credible outcome.  The defeat of Goldsmith and the clipping of the SNP's wings are signs that the electorate may be getting the message that the system is their to reflect their wishes, rather than what is imposed upon them - and there is now the space to move this forward.  Perhaps.

However, in the meantime it is amusing to note that the Liberal Democrats now have more first-past-the-post seats in the Scottish Parliament than the Labour Party.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Trump, demagogues and a political precipice

Given the number of potential disasters that can befall the world, the introverted nature of English politics is always intriguing.  Having relocated to a country where there is febrile muttering around the prospects for a second referendum on independence, and where electoral systems have been designed to provide at least the basis for pluralism in its own affairs, watching the numerous pseudo-democratic unravellings south of the border is on occasion a spur for schadenfreude, or at least a sneaky Laphroaig.

Today's news that, at least within the mainstream Republican party, there is unlikely to be any resistance to the domination of Donald Trump should act as a reminder to the dangers of the paradigm shift that is going on in the globalised, post-capitalist world.  It should also make people more motivated to cleave to empowered supra-national bodies, but that is another argument that will need to be fleshed out over the next weeks.

Trump, who appears to be more appealing to a spectrum of opinion that ranges from the Klan to Vladimir Putin than to most of his own party, is a prime example of the way in which rich, self-entitled demagogues can seize the initiative.  They do not even need to be rich, if they can provoke the kind of media adulation that enables them to be taken seriously without scrutiny or challenge, or if they can play some form of victim card that apparently provides the magical shield of protection from logic and the unfortunate actions of oxygen and gravity that so constrain the rest of us with morality and the sense of self-importance so important to contemporary success.

Given the nature of politics, it is unlikely that Trump's triumphant progress will go unchallenged, and it would be foolish to even speculate what his own party will do to him in order to secure its own future.  However, the spectrum of amoral egotists, whose paradigms run from Blair, through Johnson and Goldsmith, to Putin and even to some of the less effective self-appointed messiahs (think Galloway), is an alarming one for people who believe that politics should be about the exchange of ideas, of mutual respect and at least a potential consideration of mind-changing.

I have always contended that one of the key problems is alienation and impotence.  Much of the British political system is dominated by safe seats, low turnouts and centralisation of power - not being significantly diluted in England at least despite the protestations of the government around City Deals and the shape-shifting Northern Powerhouse rodomontade.  Apathy feeds the kind of resentment that self-styled outsiders, pace the hypocritical canting of Trump and Farage, can channel into what passes for a political movement.

As with other developments over the last weeks, this suits the electoral manipulators fine.  Eventually the perception of amorality and disenfranchisement provides them with the cover that is needed to further erode both the point of political discourse and the possibility of developing engagement with people that is based around the concept of an empowered citizenry.  Voters are fodder, only requiring to be attended to as bit-part actors in the death-dance of the super-wealthy, who are able to buy their way to power, distorting the techniques of influence and persuasion, and deploying resource to damage and smear their opponents rather than having the confidence or the brainpower to engage with different viewpoints.

In Scotland, the race to come second has become the story of the election.  Very little scrutiny of the policy platforms, or indeed the track record of the incumbent government, has gone on - although I suspect that it will be the last time that the SNP can expect such an easy ride.  Partly it is down to an enfeebled media, and one which, at a UK level, finds it hard to comprehend the idea that there is something more than Westminster and the Tory-Labour duopoly, even after nearly twenty years of settled devolution.

The Trumpery is a threat to world peace and prosperity, but the emergence of such politics much closer to home is an equal challenge to legitimate government, and the consensus that is required for popular consent.  Waking up to the potential revolutionary impact of the western oligarchs is now the top priority for wider politics, and those engaged in it from a spectrum that includes my grouchy libertarian leftism to the mainstream of the national parties, the Labour Party and the Tories.  It may well be that the only defence against the menace posed is for a much more mature and tolerant dialogue from the bottom-up.  Rest assured that this is not part of the narrative, and therefore space must be carved out before the social and ethical constructs of the enlightenment and consensual government are blown up and replaced with a totalitarian model that would meld both the Communist and Fascist regimes with modern social and economic controls - and which could be unstoppable if legitimised.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Snake oil economics and betraying Chancellors.

On occasion, when not flabbergasted by the inanity and evil of contemporary politics, it is possible to fall into a reflective vein.  Focusing on ignorance and bigotry, in the context of both electoral tussles and the more significant attempt to lie the United Kingdom out of the European Union, permits the politics of the soundbite and the narrowly-partisan to dominate, rather than taking a considered view. A throwaway comment on social media last week started rumination on the failures of economic policy over a long period.

Reflecting on Chancellors of the Exchequer, in the last forty years there have been three distinguished occupants of the post.  Against the conventional, self-serving wisdom, this does not include those who have self-identified with the desire for promotion but rather those who have inherited crises and malfunction either from their predecessors or from beyond the boundaries of their competence.  This does not include either Nigel Lawson, whose disastrous tenure of the post was followed by the rapid turnover that led to Major being supplanted by the risible Lamont or Gordon Brown, whose inability to capitalise on a benign political and economic environment was a partial catalyst of the 2008 crash.

Indeed, I would argue that the period 1983-1993 marked the nadir of British economic policy.  The first of my successful Chancellors is Denis Healey, whose inheritance of hyper-inflation, the misplaced 1973 Tory dash for growth in the face of reality and a country which was moving into psychic meltdown is seldom remembered.  Bringing price inflation under control was an achievement, and many of the more sensible policies were pursued by Geoffrey Howe - an indifferent Chancellor whose first and reckless gamble was to stoke inflation by hiking up VAT - despite his reputation at that stage as a hard-core Thatcherite.

The second success was Kenneth Clarke, whose legacy was the Lawson boom and the humiliation of an over-valued, self-important sterling exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.  Through stabilising and a lack of flashy policy the general economic legacy that he handed to Labour in 1997 was relatively benign.  My final nomination goes to Alistair Darling, whose actions in stabilising the financial sector staved off a worse collapse, given the extent to which the British economy was built on sand under the policies of the previous 25 years, with a mildly-honourable cap-doffing to Gordon Brown who collaborated - although the subsequent corporate welfare dependency has distorted both politics and economics.

What these three have in common is more than stabilising in the event of a crisis, but a greater recognition that activity in economic policy is not in itself a good.  It may be a necessity, but it does not mean that the standard syllogism applies - doing nothing may be a less bad outcome than the tendency to tinker.

No Chancellor, however, has tackled the fundamental lunacies or illogicalities at the heart of the system.  Nobody has been bold enough to stand up and state that the function of government is not to print money, nor to distract the population from the realities of their individual and collective situation.  Instead we have the showman approach, with which Osborne, Brown and Lawson have had the most time to do damage - tinkering, smoke-and-mirrors and a lazy intellectual and moral dishonesty over the timeframe within which their chickens will return to roost.

Standing up to announce that taxes are not inevitably bad, nor that they need to fall, is seen as an act of weakness (or supreme political courage).  Ensuring that, whatever the economic justification, there are no losers in client groups takes precedence - hence the ongoing wealth transfer going on within British society towards property landlords, pensioners and those whose parasitism is enabled by their wealth, and who can escape the consequences of their actions.  The hollow laughter that greets the "we're all in this together" justification for further redistribution to the top echelons has a basis both in perception and the reality.

Where successful Chancellors score is by a degree of honesty.  Brown raised taxes by stealth and through increasing complexity.  Osborne has been only to happy to continue this, while presenting headline cuts that are always some distance into the future.  The client groups of big business love loopholes and avoidance - so a complex tax code supports them - while at the same time there is no attempt to make the case that raising revenue for the common good is at least as tenable a position as the atomised lunacy that the extreme right continue to peddle as a panacea that works for them, or at least the groups who can escape the consequences of their actions.

Add to this two elements of short-termism.  For most of the last four decades inflation has been the Chancellor's friend - reducing the real value of debt at the same time as it eats away at the real value of savings.  Now that inflation cannot be relied upon, the get-out-of-jail card is much harder to apply. This has taken a very long time to sink in - and the expectation of growth is transferred to bubbles elsewhere which the current Chancellor has taken immense pains to inflate - rather than manage - as the rentier class benefit at the expense of wider societal interests.

The second is the attempt to fund current expenditure through asset sales.  Privatisation is not an inherent evil, but Harold Macmillan's phrase resonates thirty years on - the short-term influx of cash does not make up for the flow of future income, and you can bemoan the fate of the family silver without being able to do more than hand-wringing.  Add to this the craven idiocy of many PFI schemes, and the failure of nerve that did not result in the depression yielding cheaply-funded public works to modernise infrastructure, and in the context of a cargo cult that outsourcing to private sector companies whose objectives are, even when merely maximising shareholder value, usually at odds with the users and funders of services, and you have a recipe for a state that cannot support the level of activity required in a modern society.

A Chancellor who got up and said that we need to have a long-term economic objective would be howled down by his or her own supporters (notably the post has resisted female occupancy) - especially as some of the choices about the kind of society that we might want would imply the potential to increase taxes.  A Chancellor whose proposals were for the greater good would be unable to resist the siren calls of the client groups, and who in removing anomalies and the chance to steal from the common pool would be depriving the economic perverts of their pleasure and self-entitlement.

Economic policy is not just about gimmicks, or the application of theory.  All three identified above were eclectic and pragmatic, rather than bound to whichever third-rate guru or financial Ponzi merchant was bending their ear at the time.  Osborne might still aspire to mediocrity, but he continues all the short-termism and the third-rate ring-master role that distinguishes most Labour and Tory policy over the last decades.  Britain's people, nations and communities still deserve better.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Zac Goldsmith, clickbait and the perversion of politics

The relentless media frenzy over the Labour party's travails just seems too convenient.  Last week the Tories faced what could be a highly embarrassing legal process over the 2015 General Election, and the apparent ambiguity of their campaign funding (naturally working in their favour).  There is about to be another assault on the BBC, with the compromised Culture Secretary doing the business on behalf of Murdoch and others to whom he owes fealty.  The EU referendum debate is proving to be less straightforward for the Brexit brigade, whose risible parade of the undead and the never-alive gets more desperate by the week.

This is the inevitable result of degraded politics.  I had intended returning to a critique of economic policy over the last four decades, but despair about the level of discourse and potential for political debate means that this will need to await this week's elections and a more composed attitude.  Instead, the focus on the media's repugnancy and the despicable techniques being used to cheapen debate and marginalise those whose involvement in politics is more than merely a toxic, self-obsessed pursuit of power, should be ringing alarm bells.

Engagement in politics diminishes, and the parties become marginalised.  This is inevitable when the level of conduct is defined by what can be got away with, rather than what should be expected.  All shades of the political spectrum have their exponents of this perversion.  There are also those in all parties whose motivations are to serve the public, and who are prepared to acknowledge that their views, however sincere, can be challenged, argued with and should not be used as the basis for closing down debate.

The final nadir of this was not Livingstone's or Khan's behaviour, stupid and insensitive though they may have been.  In my view, politics has been dragged from the sewer into the rectal realms of the Devil by the Mail on Sunday and Zac Goldsmith, whose blatant attempt to smear Labour's mayoral candidate as a terrorist fellow-traveller would, in a world where normal, civilised standards applied, result in revulsion or disgust - if Khan had used any similar slurs against the plutocrat, trustafarian hypocrite the Blackshirt attack dogs would have been calling not merely for his removal from the candidacy but for his prosecution.  The silence of the Prime Minister is nothing short of what is expected from a man who cannot comprehend how he should be setting an example of better practice.

As a cynic, this has all the hoof-prints of Lynton Crosby about it.  Last week's furore over Labour was  inflamed for partisan advantage - not that there was anything to be proud of for Corbyn, but Khan was demonstrating resilience in the face of increasingly hysterical attempts to smear him from both Cameron and Goldsmith.  Khan may be pedestrian, but he is not smug, manipulative or obviously sectional in his interests, and as London stood apart from the pro-Tory mood in England in 2015 he was obviously in with a chance.  Given he had been reaching out to London's large Jewish communities, what better than to whistle this particular dog?  Especially in the context of the difficulty in disproving anti-semitism given the McCarthyite views of parts of the media, conveniently jumping on the bandwagon.

Goldsmith's racist rant would not have disgraced Nick Griffin, although it is amusing to note that the latter scumbag has endorsed Livingston's views.  Indeed, as was pointed out, the picture of the bombed bus from 7th July 2005 had also been used to adorn a broadly-similar BNP leaflet in Barking.  Goldsmith is clearly banking on either winning, in which case that will be a legitimate tactic, or losing, in which case his career is stalled (hopefully over), and when a racist, Islamophobe slur will be the least of his worries.  What disgusts me is that this could even be seen as a proper political tactic, let alone moral or evidenced.

Politicians aren't trusted, and they need to be.  A political class has developed that is broadly isolated both from reality and from the perceptions of the impact of their behaviour.  This has led to fragmentation and insurgency, which is doubtless one of the factors in the SNP's success - although as a party with a programme and objectives they will not unravel as other protesting destinations like the Liberal Democrats and UKIP have done, but more crucially towards disconnection from politics.  The belief that both the system and its participants stink is widespread - Goldsmith has sunk to a depth designed to secure clicks to the Sunday Blackshirt.

For anyone to come out of this with credit in the Tories, they need to disown him before the election. This is on the same scale as Boris's public racism, and equivalent to anything that individual members of the Labour Party (or indeed the more hidden Tory antisemites) have come up with.  Goldsmith should be isolated - staff, support and funding - and left out to dry alongside other right-wing demagogues whose true colours only come out in the public contest of an election.