What should Dave Do?
Maybe it's human nature but we Brits often seek to find someone to blame when things go wrong. I don't know whether "Through no fault of mine..." translates into other languages but you certainly hear it often in Britain. The blame culture spreads by word of mouth, but especially when the tabloid press sees a target. So our concerns about our present economic malaise are directed not at the real causes (Financial institutions, greed and general macroeconomic mismanagement) but at villains it is easy to spit venom at. The European Union, say, or immigrant labour. There are aspects of our status within the EU that are less than optimal no doubt. And in some cases citizens of EU States are getting jobs which would otherwise go to British citizens. But in truth these are fringe concerns compared with our seemingly endemic failure to get growth in the economy, principles in our corporate governance and to control our national debt or manage our budget.
Basic rule of British, or rather English politics – new Parties never get anywhere! For a time in the early 1980s it did seem that the mould of British politics was being changed. In response to Margaret Thatcher's then hugely unpopular Conservative Government and the Labour Party’s near fatal lurch to the neo-Marxist Left the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was formed and in 1981/1982 for a short time it was successful. The SDP was a breakaway from Labour of 28 MPs so from its start it had a significant representation in the House of Commons. Looking back with hindsight virtually all of the SDP’s core policies were adopted – mostly by the “New Labour” Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The SDP was the moderate Centre/Left Party that Labour had to become to be electable.
So if the SDP was the opposite of extremist and had ideologies that were broadly to underpin the Labour governments of 1997-2010 why why did it not succeed in the early 1980s? There were two main reasons. First it was “timing”. In 1982 with Thatcher on her knees the Falklands War came to her rescue. Some opposition to the Iron Lady melted away as sufficient of the British electorate by 1983 had decided that a woman who showed such courage and determination in the Falklands could apply those qualities in other areas as well. The other reason was the electoral system. Notwithstanding the Falklands in the May 1983 election the Conservatives only got 42.4% of the vote. The SDP in alliance with the Liberal Party had 25.4% – only just behind Labour on 27.6%. But the First Past the Post electoral system did not at all allow these figures to be represented in seats. Here the Tories got 397 to Labour’s 209. And the SDP/Liberals got just 23.
Roll forward to today and the rise of another new Party the United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP. If the SDP was a breakaway from Labour then UKIP can be seen as a breakaway from the Conservatives. Except that actually nobody of any significance has in fact broken away from the Conservative Party to join UKIP! Their leader Nigel Farage (pictured) was once a Conservative and others in the Party leadership had once been Tories as well. But as they have risen in the opinion polls and secured a huge amount of media coverage not one significant current day Conservative ( and certainly no MP) has joined them. This is in part because the Conservatives already have a Party within a Party which is not that different from UKIP in its ideology. The Tory Right, comprising perhaps 100 MPs (and a fair number of Cabinet ministers), is fiercely anti Europe and want sweeping changes to Britain's immigration laws – signature UKIP policies. They believe that to stay inside the Tory tent is preferable to throwing in their lot with Mr Farage.
The problem with UKIP, and where it differs completely from the SDP, is that it is a “gut feel” Party – it appeals to the very basic prejudices in us. Where the SDP was intellectually robust and almost painstaking in the rationale for its policy programme UKIP is populist and shallow. But it has its appeal - as Labour commentator Mark Ferguson put it:
“What UKIP are tapping into is something incredibly potent – the anger of the supposedly apathetic. Many of who have long felt excluded from (or ignored by) the political process find in UKIP’s forceful approach something they can get behind.”
The SDP was defeated by “events”, by the unfairness of the electoral system and, to an extent, by the rise in Margaret Thatcher's popularity post Falklands. The unchanged electoral system will work against UKIP as well – even if they secured 15-20% of the votes in a General Election they would probably fail to get any seats. But that does not mean they are insignificant – far from it. The “Kippers” as they are known can be a serious threat to the established Parties – but above all to the Tories. UKIP voters are not taken evenly from other Parties but come predominantly from those who would have voted Conservative (if they had voted at all). So whilst many of us might find UKIP’s policies repellent there is no doubt that the Conservative party (especially those “Kippers in Tory clothes” in Parliament) will want to adopt some UKIP policies in the run up to the 2015 election to try and get their voters back. There is also no doubt that a strong UKIP vote will mean a Labour government – one of the paradoxes that our undemocratic electoral system delivers us.
Margaret Thatcher hugely benefited from the divisions on the Left of politics in the 1980s and was re-elected twice despite never securing anything like a majority of the popular vote. Mr Miliband could benefit in a similar way from the divisions on the Right in the present day as marginal seats fall to Labour because of a split in the “conservative” vote. As Mrs Thatcher said “Its a funny old world”.
And so she is finally gone, turned into a handful of ashes and a puff of smoke into the Mortlake sky. As was the case with Osama Bin Laden there will be no gravestone around which worshippers will be able to congregate, or for dissenters to desecrate. That’s the end of Margaret Thatcher – the most divisive figure in British politics in living memory. But whether we revere her or despise her if we are objective we should acknowledge that it was not just the offensively over-the-top nature of her funeral that we should deplore. We should also abhor the intellectually impoverished attempts in the last week to create the myth that “There was no alternative” to the Thatcher way back in the 1980s. This myth creation has been accompanied by an unparalleled excess of hyperbole - David Cameron’s reaction being typical:
“The real thing about Margaret Thatcher is that she didn’t just lead our country she saved our country,and I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peacetime Prime Minister.”
“The greatest” ? Well Britain has had 73 peacetime Prime Ministers since Walpole in 1721 so this is quite a claim. Cameron’s entitled to his view on this but I doubt many would share it (or find it a particularly interesting area of debate). What he is not entitled to do, in my opinion, is to peddle the myth that Thatcher “saved our country”. This claim, and its close cousin Thatcher’s own phrase, so beloved of her supporters, “There is No Alternative” are just fallacious. Not only was there an alternative but if it had happened, as it nearly did, Britain would be a far better place today.
Lets travel back to the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher, the new leader of the Conservative Party, started her crusade. The quadrupling of Crude Oil prices in the early part of the decade caused a shock to the system not dissimilar to the banking meltdown of 2007. Edward Heath as Prime Minister struggled to deal with the after effects of this and failed also to achieve his ambition of freeing up the City to compete more effectively. There was a series of U-turns. The Industrial Relations climate under Heath was woeful and when he tried to take on the miners with a “Who Governs Britain” question the country told him he didn't - and Labour returned to power. The Wilson administration of 1974-1976 was notable for its achievement in restoring order after the chaos of Heath and his three-day week. They did this not from the Left but from the centre and it is worth quoting what one of the most astute of political commentators of those times, Peter Jenkins, said in April 1976:
“Mrs Margaret Thatcher is having to come to terms with a powerful Government led by a powerful Prime Minister which has stolen some of her more fashionable creations…Mr Wilson has put together what is a really powerful ruling coalition… [and] he has answered the question “Who rules the country?” and exploded the notion…of ungovernability. The country does have now a kind of National Government appropriate to a deep economic crisis…. [Mr Wilson’s] Government does not dare, and perhaps never will, to speak openly the language of German Social Democracy, but that is the direction in which their policies are now pointing. Like it or loathe it, the face of British politics has been virtually transformed…”
So the legacy taken over by James Callaghan in 1976 when Wilson retired was not that of a country which need “saving” and was also one in which the forces of Social Democracy, rather than Socialism, were already beginning to be dominant. Nevertheless it was still something of a “hospital pass”. In 1975, inflation had touched 25% and the Industrial Relations climate, though better than under Heath, was poor. By late 1978 Callaghan and Denis Healey had reduced inflation to less than 10% and the Government, whilst not hugely popular, was sufficiently respected to have a lead in the opinion polls of 5.5% in November. Callaghan could well have won an Autumn 1978 General Election if he had called one. Members of Callaghan's cabinet at that time included Denis Healey, David Owen, Shirley Williams, Peter Shore, Eric Varley, Roy Hattersley, Bill Rodgers and Harold Lever. All of these highly influential figures were of the social-democratic right and although there were to an extent balanced by left-wingers like Michael Foot and Tony Benn it was clear that the trend to the centre identified in 1976 by Peter Jenkins had continued. If Britain didn't need “saving” in 1976 then it didn't in late 1978 either!
Between late 1978 and May 1979 the Callaghan government was to go into free-fall. The “Winter of Discontent” showed that the “Coalition” under Wilson had broken down and there is no denying the fact that the Nation, or large parts of it, had had enough. A 7 per cent swing to the Conservatives gave them an overall majority of 43 and brought Margaret Thatcher to power. As we have seen only a few months earlier there had been an alternative and now, immediately, there was to be one again - albeit one involving the need for Labour to play the waiting game. In his autobiography David Owen wrote “I hoped [Callaghan] would resign immediately… If he went now, he could go with dignity and hand over to Denis Healey.” That Callaghan did not do this – and indeed hung on until November 1980 – was one of the most fateful mistakes in politics in modern history, at least as seen from the perspective of the Left! As we have seen the modernising of the Party had already been underway under Wilson and had Callaghan won an Election in the Autumn of 1978 there is no reason why this would not have continued. Similarly had Callaghan given way to Healey in June 1979 (Healey would certainly have won a leadership contest) then in opposition Healey, Owen, Williams, Rodgers and the rest could have worked to continue the transformation of Labour to a modern Social Democratic Party. They would have offered a strong opposition to Mrs Thatcher who was struggling arguably more than Callaghan had ever done. Inflation was at 22% by May 1980 and the Conservatives were down to around 35% in the opinion polls with Labour at nearly 50%. However at that moment the Party decided to commit Hari-Kari! A Special Conference decided on a very Left Wing defence agenda involving Unilateral Disarmament. By the end of the year , as Owen put it, “Partisan politics was back in Britain with a vengeance”. Michael Foot had been elected leader of the Labour Party and the cause of Social Democracy, so buoyant less than a year or so earlier, had been defeated – temporarily anyway.
To return for a moment to the subject as to whether there was an alternative to Thatcher and whether she was “Saving the country” in those early years of her Premiership. First there is no doubt that a new Labour Party could have emerged and been successful under Healey. This didn’t happen but it was an alternative. Secondly what did happen instead was the most open threat to Thatcher of all – the foundation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. If a Healey-led Labour party was an alternative to Thatcherism that didn't happen the SDP was an alternative which most certainly did – and it was only defeated by the extraordinary circumstances of the Falklands War. The SDP was founded on opposition by Social Democrats to the fact that, as they said, “A handful of trade union leaders can now dictate the choice of a future Prime Minister”. The SDP was not “anti union” in the simplistic sense of that phrase but pro democracy – and therefore against the block vote and the disproportionate amount of power that Union leaders had in the Labour Party. The SDP was more than this of course and it had a credible complete manifesto which by the 1997 General Election had become mainstream Labour policy – but that's another story!
In 1981 the SDP gathered strength. A Gallup poll in December gave the SDP (with its Liberal allies) 50% of the vote with Labour and the Tories on around 23% each. And by-elections had been won as well. Then in April 1982 the Falklands War broke out and the country rallied behind Margaret Thatcher and her Government. Although the “Alliance” , as it now was, continued to poll quite well and at the the 1983 Election only 42.4% of the electorate who voted chose the Conservatives with 53% choosing one or other of the two main Opposition parties (who were almost equally split). Nevertheless the electoral system gave Thatcher an overwhelming majority of 144. Was there an alternative to Thatcher in 1983 ? 57.8% of those voting thought so – they just couldn't agree what it was !
So as we have seen there most certainly were viable alternatives to Thatcher and the Country was within a whisker three times of either not having her at all of of minimising her reign. In 1978 Callaghan could have won an election and later have handed over to Healey who would have driven the Labour Party down a Social Democratic path. The SDP would never have happened – and nor would a Thatcher premiership. In 1979 Healey could have immediately succeeded Callaghan as Leader. Again the SDP would not have happened and whilst the Falklands effect might still have meant that Thatcher won in 1983 that is unlikely. A united (Social Democratic) Labour Party under Healey would surely have defeated Thatcher if she had only got the 42.4 % she did when Michael Foot was her Labour opponent. Indeed far more likely is that against Healey she would have got less than that and been soundly defeated. Finally had the Falklands War not happened then the 1983 election could have had an outcome with the SDP/Alliance being a major influence and possibly forming a Government in some sort of Coalition with Labour.
Margaret Thatcher was a remarkable woman but she was far from the only moderniser around in the late 1970s and 1980s. The challenge of changing the Labour Party was well under way under Harold Wilson in 1976 and it was only the ghastly “Winter of Discontent” that halted it. The principles of Social Democracy were alive and well in 1979 but the Neanderthals of the Left in Labour resisted change and made Labour unelectable in the process. But whilst the Labour Party needed saving, and had to wait for Kinnock and Blair for this to happen, the Country did not. It needed to change of course – not least to the power of the Unions which was excessive. But this was recognised explicitly by those who founded the SDP (as I have shown in the quote above) and these are the same people, along with Denis Healey, who would have modernised the Labour Party and run a Social Democratic Government. One of the big “If onlys” of modern politics! Thatcherism in practice would not have happened at all or would have been a short-lived phenomenon.
There was an alternative to Thatcher – but we had to wait for New Labour in 1997 for it to happen. In the meantime in the years 1979-1990 we had confrontation, division, ideologically driven bombast, destroyed communities, destruction of the manufacturing sector, class war and latterly madness at the top. For too long she was dangerously “in office but not in power” as Geoffrey Howe put it. We were for too long governed by someone who believed not in Society, not in a mixed economy, not in partnership but in the naked power of the market – and to hell with the social cost. Some of the changes which took place during these years needed to happen – after all Blair/Brown did not repeal them. But could it all have happened without the confrontation ? Maybe it could. Certainly once Thatcher was gone a calmer approach to governance happened under John Major – albeit from a Conservative perspective. Not “One Nation” maybe – but not Thatcherite either.
It is our lack of heroes today which forces us to seek heroes from the past. We all too often look back to times when life was different and ascribe virtues in a hugely exaggerated way. This leads to the sort of hyperbole of Cameron’s statement above and to the frankly absurd over the top send off for Margaret Thatcher. She was not far away from being just a footnote in history as I have tried to argue here. And I think that we’d all be better off if she had been.
"It's chilling to think what we would have become if Baroness Thatcher hadn't been PM. Makes one realise the fine line history treads." So tweeted conservative commentator Stephen Pollard tonight in the context of the Iron Lady's demise.
At the recent National Association of Pension Funds Conference in Edinburgh I asked Tony Blair which was the greater block to the creation of change – the Political or the Bureaucratic. He said emphatically that it was the Political. This surprised me a bit – I thought he would say it was both. The answer was interesting also because Blair had three terms as PM during which the Opposition was weak and during which he had a pretty united Party behind him (Iraq the exception as always).
I suspect that if you had asked Margaret Thatcher the same question midway through her Premiership she would have said the the main block to change was bureaucratic. Not for nothing was her favourite TV programme “Yes Minister”! She never quite cracked the Civil Service but until the end of her years in power she got the Conservative Party to toe her line. She didn't bother that much about the Wets!
The above a reflection of the fact that as Bismarck said “Politics is the Art of the Possible”. So the management of the economy over the past three years has been conducted within the boundaries of what Cameron/Osborne judge to be politically possible. Working in a Coalition has been trying and has placed huge constraints on what I suspect the Tories would really have liked to have done. Where cost/benefit is less an issue, e.g. on Education, they would no doubt say that successes have been achieved. Certainly Gove is pursuing a set of policies that would not upset too many of the Tory faithful. But on the big-ticket items such as the NHS and Welfare the Government has had its hands tied - partly through their own choice. I have no doubt that deep down the Cameron/Osborne would like a radical change to the NHS with it becoming a much reduced charge on taxation revenues. The irony is that this is what opponents of reform think is actually happening but in fact the NHS budget has not been reduced. It’s the worst of both worlds – the Government’s handling of the NHS has been roundly condemned and yet there are no real expenditure savings accruing anyway!
So in the Budget the political will inevitably dominate. The Tory Right, a huge thorn in Cameron’s flesh, will hammer away at anything that doesn't produce real falls in spending. The LibDems, with the confidence of Eastleigh behind them, will argue for a Keynesian boost (Vince Cable is well on the case). The Labour Party will play politics lambasting the economic mismanagement on the one hand and calling for a borrowing driven spending boost on the other.
I think that Osborne will try and please the Tory Right with some fiscal act such as a 1% reduction in Corporation Tax or maybe a small reduction in National Insurance contributions.He may also have an infrastructure investment surprise. As a Pension Fund Trustee (and a bit of an unreformable Keynesian!) I would welcome the creation of an attractive instrument for such investment. Maybe an “Infrastructure Bond” paying a tad over normal rates which institutional investors would find attractive. As someone concerned about Pensions I would also very much welcome a radical initiative giving substantial tax advantages to those (employers and employees) who invest in DC schemes. As a bit of a “Green” I would also welcome increases in fuel duty and other green taxes - but that won’t happen. Its the politics stupid!
Finally there is the elephant in the room which is inflation. Over history Governments have inflated their way out of economic difficulties and budget deficits. It must be tempting. I suspect Osborne has spent some time with Mr Carney already on this!
The Westminster village got all in a tizz in the run up to the Eastleigh by-election. But as Michael Deacon in the Daily Telegraph pointed out “Some in the press are calling this the most important by-election for 30 years. But important to whom? To the candidates and activists and parties, certainly. But to locals it seems more like a nuisance.”
I am surprised at the lazy way that politicians and commentators continue to suggest that austerity is a policy not an outcome. It is the latter. No sane leader would wish to impose austerity on his people. But, as in the immediate post war era, at times Macroeconomic realities dictate that there has to be restraint, especially more closely to match government outgoings to government income. A combination of expenditure cuts and tax rises can cause widespread hardship - increased unemployment reduced family purchasing power, and, especially, low or even negative growth. This is a vicious circle within which growth is a casualty of reduced government spending and reduced personal spending which is the direct outcome.
Back in 1972, at the height of promotions on the forecourt, Shell launched a “Great Britons” giveaway at their UK Petrol stations. 20 Postcard size prints could be collected with Shell petrol and kept in an album. The 20 Britons were chosen by the Historian Sir Arthur Bryant. This is who he chose:
An interesting list. I don't think Elgar would feature on many such lists although personally I'm delighted to see him there. Other questionable choices are Marlborough and Scott and perhaps Captain Cook. Churchill aside there are no politicians (of the modern sort that is!). But logical choices otherwise ?
Does David Cameron actually believe in ANYTHING ? I ask this in the context of the line now being peddled by his office that he will be the "Most Eurosceptic PM ever". Put aside for a moment the question as to what the hell this means. And let's also not be too squeamish about the vulgarity of political opportunism - which this stance so obviously is. What I would like to know, and as a citizen I have a right to know, is deep down what sort of Leader we have. Is he Green as once he claimed or does he lean more to Climate change denial as could be the case? Does he believe in Europe and Britain's central place in it (as he is on record as saying) or does he really want to become a Norway or a Switzerland? Does he want to be tender in his approach to the hoodies of this world (he wanted to hug them remember) - or does he want to lock them up and throw away the key.?
David Cameron's New Year's message is very poor stuff. There are no less than four uses of Cameron's favourite "Our country" - a strangely alien and ambivalent construct. There are no less than four defensive paragraphs about the "inheritance" - haven't his advisers warned him that that line has long ago run out of steam? He is speaking for the Government but there is no mention of its Coalition status and the overall tone is Party political despite his attempts at inclusion. The word "we" is used 23 times but the "Big Society" gets no mention - indeed the fact that most of us get on with our lives and take our own decisions is ignored. The work that Games Maker's did in London 2012 was just a symbol of the fact that our citizens respond to challenges not because we are told to but because we want to and need to. Cameron's pompous message is all "top down" stuff - as if only Government can achieve change. I thought that Conservatives eschewed "Big Government" - well you wouldn't think so from this message.
Matthew Parris in The Times today has an article of such venal complacency and bombast that it demands a riposte.
Let me start with a disclaimer. I like Matthew Parris and admire his writing. I don’t share his politics but I usually find I share his values. He is self-evidently a good man, a bright one and a generous one. That said this piece is the biggest load of bunkum I have read in years!
I won’t attempt to question Parris’s motives for writing this piece because frankly I can’t imagine what they might be! So let’s skip that and just look forensically at the content and then the underlying premise.
“British politics is performing magnificently”. Well apart from the fact that we have a Coalition Government whose partners are at war, whose majority Party is malignantly split and whose elected members are rebellious.
“Our administration is on even keel”. Except that hardly a week goes by when there isn’t a U-turn and for whom a new word had to be coined “Omnishambles”
“There are no threats to public order”. Riots, protest matches, strikes and other disorders aside I assume he means.
“Finest and strongest parliamentary democracies in the world”. But one which disenfranchises millions has corrupt and expenses-fiddling members and which has an Upper House which nobody chose and is an abomination.
“We’ve run out of money”. Actually we haven’t. The core of the economy is sound - the issue is over how long we take to reign in the budget deficit. We have got the resources to do this.
“…we are electing Governments to make us poorer. The vast majority understands this.” I very much doubt that the “vast majority” has a clue about this. This is a nuanced, metropolitan, chattering classes view. And it’s debatable anyway.
“British politics keeps passing the test”. No it doesn’t! It is a cosy world, dominated by an Oxbridge-educated elite in the Civil Service and on the front benches. British politics is more out-of-touch with ordinary people than it has ever been. And to suggest that the “electorate [has an] understanding of what has happened” is risible.
Our free press is “vigorous, impertinent and unruly” boasts Parris. It is, or the tabloid end of it anyway, also venal, simplistic, biased, mendacious, intrusive and the purveyor of trite populist cant.
We voted in 2010 for “parties that promised austerity”. What choice did we have? There were no “tax and spend” manifestoes on offer.
“Mr Miliband and Mr Balls Are decent, realistic and intelligent democrats”. Well that may be true but the Jury is out. At the moment they are short-sighted players of political games voting with unpleasant allies in the House of Commons with the sole purpose of embarrassing the Prime Minister.
“Careful plans for a referendum in Scotland”. What nonsense! Parris tries to give a post imperial context to his article and if we do look back then surely the risk of the break-up of the United Kingdom (along with the risk that we might have to withdraw from the European Union” is greater than it has been in the last 40 years. Utterly incompetent central government had brought us to this.
“No election that fails to return John Prescott can be entirely without merit”. That is cheap, unfunny, unworthy and unnecessarily provocative and contentious.
The underlying premise of Parris is that all is well in the kingdom – especially when compared with the ghastly foreigners the other side of the channel. Well that’s just playing Patriot Games. They do things differently in foreign countries – as Parris should know from his deep knowledge of Catalonia. It is just balderdash to suggest that our muddling through is better than Greek or Catalan conflict. Sometimes you need to bring a problem to a head rather than just bumbling on. Time will tell who emerges from the current difficulties in better shape. That it is conceivable that the shape we will end in is a broken United Kingdom, cast adrift from Europe, with our antediluvian institutions utterly unable to cope is quite possible. But maybe the 'Old maids [will be] bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist' – as the rest of us die the death forced by our own inaction and complacency.
Without the need to resort to hyperbole of the “Greatest Nation on Earth” type we can be proud of Britain. Our staging of London2012 showed we can put on a world class show and London is the undisputed unofficial capital of the world. And much of our Media is also of international class. “The Economist” is arguably the best weekly newspaper in the English language and on a good day our serious newspapers – the FT, The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent have writing and insights that make them must reads way beyond our shores. But head and shoulders above everything is the British Broadcasting Corporation – the absolute Jewel in our Crown and not just in the media category either.
Compulsory Latin, suspension for a skinhead haircut and prizes for coming first! It's not Eton or Harrow, but it may just be the strictest state school in Britain
In an article in the Daily Mail under the above headline Jonathan Petre describes his visit to the “West London Free School” (WLFS) – one of the jewels in the crown of the Coalition Government’s education policy led by Education Minister Michael Gove.
For me the values of this school, and the assumptions which lie behind them, are truly appalling. The WLFS seems to be taking Education back 50 years to the 1950s . The idea of compulsory Latin is absurd but instructive because it reveals the attitudes and mind-set of those conducting this offensive social experiment. It is almost as if the modernisation of education that has occurred since I was a child in the 1950s had never happened.
We have always had an extraordinary diversity of educational standards and practices in Britain. The Independent sector, affordable for less than 7% of parents, generally provides exceptional education – as it should given that it can cream off some of the best teachers by offering higher salaries and far better facilities and working conditions. Then there is the plethora of Faith School which overtly and deliberately confuse the inculcation of religious practices and norms with education. Many of these Faith schools are State funded. Then we have the grey area of Schools which are not logical members of the majority State norm – the Comprehensive schools – but are nevertheless in the State system. New Labour’s Academies and the Coalition’s similar Free Schools fall into this category.
What this diversity and inconsistency means is that parents can either pay for their children’s education if they can afford to, or play the Postcode game – trying to get themselves resident in an area which has the better State Schools, including, if that is how they perceive them, the Academies and the Free Schools. There is absolutely no equality of opportunity (a foundation of any civilised society) in this. A child's education depends on the wealth of their parents and/or their skill in finessing things so that they are in the right place at the right time! The poor parent who is ill-equipped to play the game and may not even see the value of education in the first place will have ill-educated children going to poor schools – the “bog standard comprehensives” as Alastair Campbell once infamously called them.
The WLFS seems to ape the traditions of the Grammar Schools of the Post War era – and remember that these schools themselves were to some extent imitations of the style of the elite “Public Schools”. The uniforms, the discipline, the compulsory Latin remind me of my days at Dulwich College in the 1950s. Frankly this school nearly broke me mainly because of the elements of school life there which the WLFS is incorporating into its their daily routines. That some pupils will respond positively in these conditions I don't doubt – but that does not make it right. That some will fail because they find the discipline too strong, the uniforms a parody of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the compulsory teaching of a dead language indefensible seems likely as well. Hopefully these children will leave and find a more congenial environment – as I did when I slunk away from Dulwich at the age of 12!
That Latin can be an option on the curriculum is fair enough in any school that has the competence to teach it. That it should be compulsory is grotesque. Indeed it is arguable that only the obvious core subjects which inculcate essential life skills should be compulsory. Latin is not one of these.
The discipline of the School and the conformity required by its silly uniforms creates a sub culture that is not matched in modern Society. It resembles a religiously bigoted institution where imposed behavioural standards are unlike anything in the real world and as a result create school leavers utterly unprepared for the challenges of early adulthood. It is a shameful and indulgent experiment
Participating on “Newsnight” in a discussion on the subject of Energy prices Labour's Shadow Minister (no less) Caroline Flint said that what the Gas and electricity industries need, in the consumer interest, is more competition. This revealed a staggering lack of knowledge of how the Energy sector works and represents not just a curious ideological position for a Labour politician to take but a wholly erroneous confidence in free markets - in this area at least.
Energy is one of the commodities that we all need and use - and by all I mean not just individuals and families as consumers but industry, commerce and the public and private sectors generally and universally. Our transport sector relies on electricity for motive power (most if not all trains). We heat our homes, our factories, our hospitals etc. mostly with Gas. Virtually everything we do relies on Gas, or Electricity - or both. To say that Energy policy, and especially the provision of affordable and sufficient supplies of Gas and Electricity across the Nation, is crucial to our well-being should not really need saying. It is a statement if the obvious.
So if Energy at a Macro level is one of the key areas of Britain's resource management what does this mean for public policy making? Strategically it is Government's responsibility to assure our Energy future - and to do this in the national interest economically, environmentally, socially and reliably for the long term. This sounds complicated and highly political! It is certainly the latter - especially after the privatisation of the Gas and Electricity (generation and distribution) industries which began in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher's Governments. But, I would argue, it need not be as complicated as some try to make it.
In this Blog let's take a look at Gas – broadly speaking the ground rules and modus operandi for Electricity are the same.
Natural Gas, which replaced manufactured (Town) Gas in the 1960s, is a finite resource produced from reservoirs underground in the world's hydrocarbon rich areas - including under the North Sea. It can be converted into some other useful commodities - but its principal value is as a primary energy resource in industry and the home (etc.) and as a fuel for many Power Stations where it is converted into Electricity. We are very substantially a Gas economy - a status that was achieved by constructing an extensive Gas distribution network over the past fifty years or so. There are few homes, except in the more remote rural areas, where Gas is not used for heating and cooking. The Gas infrastructure extends both to its transport and its consumption. Dedicated pipelines carry the Gas around the country to points of consumption - and these points of consumption are, with a few exceptions, wholly reliant on having continuous availability of Gas because there is no real alternative.
By definition there is not, and cannot ever realistically be, competitive physical distribution of Gas. There will only ever be one Gas network so any seller of Gas to end consumers has to use this network. As far as supply into the network is concerned there is a multitude of sources as Gas has, for years, been an internationally traded and distributed commodity. The principal source is the offshore production in the North Sea where, mainly in the British and Norwegian sectors, Gas is produced for UK consumption. The transfer prices at which the "upstream" producers of Gas (like Shell or BG) sell their product to the marketers is broadly based on European traded Gas prices. These prices will vary a little but in the main they are linked to Crude Oil prices. So if Oil prices rise or fall Gas prices move broadly in line – albeit with a time lag in some cases. As well as indigenous Gas production (augmented in time by shale Gas and other local resources) the UK needs to import Gas to cover the gap between local demand and local supply. Gas comes via pipeline from Europe and via ship as LNG (Liquefied National Gas). But whatever the source it all (or most of it) goes into the Gas distribution networks having been processed in privately operated plants to ensure that it meets the UK specification. The Gas distribution network is divided into sub networks, of which there are eight, each of which is owned and operated by a private company: National Grid, Northern Gas Networks, Scotia Gas Networks and Wales & West Utilities - each with a geographical monopoly.
This broad description of Gas supply shows not only that it is a strategic product whose price is subject to international factors of supply and demand but also that there is little significant scope for competition. Trading deals will be done on the margin and whilst the quantities involved are so large that a minor unit saving can be meaningful at a high level the differences at a consumer level will be negligible. Indeed there is a disconnect between price changes on the margin in the acquisition of Gas and changes in consumer prices. Consumer prices, over time, will track internationally traded Gas prices but the price that we pay in our homes is subject to other factors as well. The Gas marketing companies – British Gas (part of Centrica), Eon, EDF, Npower and the rest are primarily Gas retailers acquiring their product at wholesale prices from producers and selling it to end consumers. Their business plans are predicated on receiving income streams which cover their acquisition costs, their marketing expenses, and their operational costs – what they pay the network owners for distribution of Gas to homes (etc.) for example. There is little scope for cost differentiation and as a consequence there is little scope for consumer price differentiation. That is not to say that prices don’t vary because in a competitive market suppliers will always seek to increase their market share and aggressive tactical pricing is a tool that they all commonly use. But the key word here is “tactical” – none of the suppliers has a cost advantage that enables them over time to be more price competitive. Their product costs, distribution costs, marketing costs and other costs are likely, over time, to be broadly the same. As will the fact that as private entities they must seek to provide similar financial returns to their owners/shareholders (dividend payments).
There is no underlying cost advantage that any of the Gas marketers has which makes them a preferable long term supplier for price reasons. For the consumer who gets a kick out of shopping around (and enjoys using the price comparison websites!) there may be some merit in frequently switching suppliers to take advantage of their tactical pricing offers. But over time the customers who stick to one supplier are unlikely to be significantly disadvantaged compared with the serial supplier switcher. And the idea that the consumer could benefit from the introduction of more players into the market is highly improbable.
All this brings us to one inescapable conclusion and that is that in a commodity sector like Gas or Electricity with structural reasons in place which offer little or no scope for achieving significant cost savings competition will always be either a chimera or will be restricted to very short term special offer type tactics which cannot endure for long. What would surely be in the consumer benefit would be to eliminate marketing costs completely as they are expenses incurred solely in the task of encouraging brand switching. Similarly there is no merit in the duplication of offices and administration that having a plethora of suppliers brings with it. Similarly why should a national asset like the monopoly gas distribution network be a generator of private sector profits? So what Labour should be arguing for is the renationalisation of Gas distribution and supply into one publicly owned monopoly – a “National Gas Service” (NGS) if you like. The NGS would be targeted with managing the long term provision of Gas to all UK consumers using its massive purchasing power to source Gas on world markets at the most competitive prices. Using its network efficiencies to drive down distribution costs. Using its economies of scale to eliminate unnecessary costs such as marketing. Using its generated margins solely to reinvest in the Gas industry rather than having them creamed off in dividend payments. The end result of such a revolution would be transparent pricing, security of supply and the good feeling that what is already largely a National asset (the distribution network) became much more explicitly so.
I’ve no idea whether Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell actually called the policemen who got in his way “Plebs” or not – but it is the sort of thing that someone of his class and background might say – on a bad day. It is reported that the Etonians in the Bullingdon set at Oxford (the “Toffs”) referred to George Osborne as an “Oik” because he “only” went to what they saw as a “Minor Public School” (St Pauls) - the social gradations of the privileged are extensive! Mitchell was educated at Rugby School and Cambridge and his background is as impeccably upper middle class as Osborne’s and, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he seems to have overcome the disadvantage of not being an Etonian!
All societies are stratified and it is often in those which claim to be the most egalitarian that the strata are most defined. Think of the politburos of the “Marxist” Soviet Union or of “Communist” China. Think also of how post-revolutionary France soon re-established its social hierarchy and how the aristocracy soon returned to their châteaux – they are still there. Even the United States, which was built on the foundations of “All men are created equal”, has its social structure and the idea that money buys privilege is part of the American dream. And that money doesn't just buy privileges for the generation that acquires it – it buys advantage for their children and their children's children as well. Look at the Kennedys or the Bushs – or the Romneys for that matter.
In Britain we used to have a class system that was utterly rigid with virtually no mobility at all. The rise and rise of the Middle Classes in the nineteenth century changed that and the post-war arrival of the Welfare State (particularly the provision of good education and healthcare to all) obviously made the acquisition of wealth, and the better jobs which create it, much more universal. Some saw the election of a Socialist Government in Britain in 1945 as being the death knell of the Upper Classes – what Evelyn Waugh saw as the “rise of the Hoopers” (in Brideshead Revisited) seemed to forecast the triumph of the Middle Classes. To a great extent that happened – although the disappearance of the Aristocracy did not accompany it. In one sense we became rather more meritocratic and American as “Grammar School boys” (their excellent educations funded by the State) gained employment, wealth and position. Successive British Prime Ministers from 1964 to 1997 - Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major - were not products of the Independent school system and the mini-revolution seemed complete. In 1992 John Major said:
“The development of a truly classless society, with opportunities for all, from wherever they came, to do whatever they can with their own lives, by their own efforts, and with encouragement to achieve everything that they can. That is the sort of society that my colleagues and I will be working hard to build in the next few years.”
Whilst this rhetoric was welcome, and it is certain that Major believed it, in fact Britain was moving in the other direction. In 1997, for the first time since 1963, a public school boy became Prime Minister. Tony Blair had been educated at Fettes, seen by some as a Scottish “Eton College” – and in 2010 he was succeeded (after the brief Brown interregnum) by David Cameron - a pukka Etonian. Meanwhile one of the less remarked upon changes was taking place in the world of education. The upwardly mobile baby-boomer generation, who achieved their position thanks to the grammar schools and the huge expansion of the University system, turned their backs on the State for the education of their own progeny! The Public schools, helped by an advantageous tax system and charitable status, became aspirational to the wealthier boomers for their children's schooling. In one sense this could be seen as a positive move in the direction of equality – it was no longer only the children of the “inherited wealth” rich who could afford a private education for their children. The reality is, however, that elitism was not reduced but increased by this phenomenon – as the gap between the performance of even the best state schools and the independent sector illustrates. Follow the money. The establishment of State School “Academies” and, especially, the new breed of “Free schools” – both of which ape independent schools in their style and culture – is a kneejerk “If you cant beat them join them” response by successive governments.
John Major’s noble words of twenty years ago have been lost as the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. The world of “Noblesse Oblige” probably died out before the aristocratic Cameron, Osborne , Johnson, Mitchell and the rest were born. But the class gradations that their superior education inculcated in them live on in they way they speak ( although as Christopher Howse recently hilariously pointed out they do try and modify that with glottal stops)! And it is that fact which lies behind Andrew Mitchell’s insult to the Police. He spoke in a sneering superior way not because he made a mistake but because he let down his guard and the real Andrew Mitchell emerged. The Old Rugbyean. The son of privilege. The Oxbridge man. The Officer and a Gentleman who in truth is not a Gentlemen at all. Bit of an oik really.
I recently had a mini debate with a member of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), David Coburn, on Twitter about the idea of “uniculturalism” – an “ism” that I hadn't heard of before. It turns out that this word is a favourite of UKIP’s and it is in their policy as follows:
18 months ago the Prime Minister made a speech in which he also hammered “Multiculturalism”. here is part of what he said:
"Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.”
Both UKIP and Cameron fail to define what culture is but they nevertheless suggest strongly that to have different cultures in one Country is somehow problematic. There is a certain amount of euphemistic language being used here – especially by Cameron. But it is easy to cast away the euphemisms and get at what they are really saying.
“Uniculturalism” and Cameron’s “A society to which they they feel they want to belong” are closely related ideas if not exactly the same. Essentially the root of it is in the United States of America where the “Melting Pot” was the metaphor for the assimilation of immigrants from a variety of mainly European cultures and nations into a single American culture within a generation or so. Under this thesis there were Italian-Americans, Russian-Americnas, Irish-Americans and many others but whilst some vestige of their roots might have been maintained essentially they all melted into one American type. It is crucial to identify why this happened - and to point out where it didn't.
The “Melting Pot” worked when there was already a degree of homogeneity about the peoples thrown into it. In America it was relatively easy for the white, Christian immigrants from East, West and South Europe to meld together and also with the Anglo-Saxon origin peoples who had preceded them. The dominant existing American culture was White Anglo-Saxon and Christian and it was a fairly small step for an Irish or a Polish or a Greek or an Italian immigrant family to assimilate. Once they had mastered the English language the task was pretty much done and second generation immigrants, taught in American schools, were not really separated by culture or origins at all. It did mean there were more Roman Catholics than before and it took time for them to be accepted but John Kennedy’s election as President in 1960 put the seal on this.
But where the “Melting Pot” was far more problematic was when the immigrants were of a different race and/or religion. Here the culture clash was and remains far more challenging. For Jewish European immigrants the choice was either to hold onto their religion and its associated lifestyle requirements (which many did) or to secularise and to an extent drop their religious Jewishness. The latter group went into the melting pot and the former group rather less so - but both groups prospered in their different ways. The Chinese assimilated much less easily – indeed they did not necessarily want to nor was there any pressure on them to do so. So the Chinatowns of the big American cities remain to this day – David Cameron would no doubt call them “segregated communities” but their existence is not seen as a problem. And, of course, many Chinese-Americans did throw themselves into the Melting Pot and become to all intents and purposes indistinguishable form the Core American culture, except that they had Chinese faces! (Many of these call themselves unselfconsciously “Bananas” – yellow on the outside but white on the inside). The key point here is that it is any Chinese-American’s choice whether to assimilate completely or to stay in Chinatown and neither choice is seen as better or more commendable.
The children of the Slaves are to an extent analogous with the Chinese in that their ancestors were brought – mostly unwillingly - to the United States. However, as we know, the presence of slaves and slavery was to be the cause of the most traumatic events in American history, the Civil War. And when that was over a century of discrimination and persecution of African-Americans was to follow. In essence the white majority tried to marginalise and segregate those of their fellow Americans who were black. So they were excluded from the melting pot not just because of their colour but also because of institutionalised prejudice. In response to this a vibrant African-American culture grew up as a counterweight to the mainstream and it exists to this day. As with the Chinese African-Americans can seek to cross over from their quite distinct cultural world and enter the melting pot – although it is generally only those with the financial resources to get a better education and then employment who do so. They are the “Coconuts” – the African American equivalent of the Chinese “Bananas” brown on the outside and white inside.
From the above (and it is necessarily selective and incomplete) it is clear that the United States is unquestionably “Multicultural”. Most of its European immigrants are by now fully assimilated and the only clue to their origins may be in their surnames and to some extent their religion. More recent immigrants – especially those from Central/Latin America – are arguably on the way to following their European predecessors into the Melting pot. However the sheer scale of this immigration has meant that distinct and very large Hispanic communities have grown up in the Southern States.
With this brief sketch of the situation in the United States in mind now let us turn to the situation in the United Kingdom. What scares UKIP and worries David Cameron is that we undoubtedly have parts of our cities that are dramatically different to the mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian culture that is overwhelmingly our norm as a Nation. In the main these people differ in colour, religion and lifestyle from that mainstream norm. In some cases they may not even be English language literate – especially older people who were educated in their origin countries rather than here. Is the American style “Melting pot” going in time to assimilate these families so that they become absorbed into a “Unicultural” Britain. Will they all, a darker skin apart, in time be indistinguishable from the mainstream? Is it just about making them, as Cameron suggests, aspire to be part of our mainstream culture rather rather than the one that they or their parents brought with them? Of course not - and nor is it desirable!
Multiculturalism was never a goal – at no point did any British Government say that they wanted Britain to be a much more pluralistic society. It is a consequence of generations of immigration – mainly since the second world war. As in the United States the extent of assimilation of immigrants and their descendants has been mixed with some having the resources to enable them to become part of the mainstream society (if not culture) and others not having the resources nor wishing to do so. My Indian neighbours live to all intent and purposes mainstream British cultural lives – except that they celebrate Diwali rather than Christmas. But a few miles away there is a large and “segregated” Indian community in the London Borough of Hounslow. Does this community live lives “contrary to our values” as Mr Cameron worries about. Well it rather depends what your values are I suppose! And this is the key point.
I broadly live a life that I was brought up to. The religious observances I occasionally attend are in Churches not in Mosques or Temples. The language I speak is English with a received pronunciation accent. My lifestyle is irredeemably middle-class and to an extent privileged. That is my culture. It is rather different to the culture of only a few streets away from me. Not just different from the Indians of Hounslow but from the white working class of (say) Feltham. This is the rub - and goes back to the question at the head of this article “What is culture?”. Is there a uniculturalism that unites me with the white working glass community on my doorstep but not with the Indian community a few miles away? I would say emphatically not. And there is no hierarchy of culture which makes me a Londoner better than someone from Edinburgh, or makes me as a white superior to someone who is black, or makes me as comparatively well off better than someone who survives on the minimum wage.
So the question to UKIP and to Mr Cameron is this. If you believe in Uniculturalism, where there is a common “Vision of Society” and to which we all conform or aspire, which of our cultures are you talking about? And if, as is obvious really, that is a white Anglo-Saxon, Christian society (like Britain in the 1930s perhaps) does that mean that you want to outlaw Islam? And does that mean you only tolerate incomers if they become Bananas or Coconuts? Because if that is what you mean forget it. It isn't going to happen. The more that you set societal “norms” backed by some specious “vision” the more that you will encourage those who don’t want it to retreat to their “segregated communities”. Remember how blacks in America developed their separate lifestyle and culture because they had to in response to American Apartheid.
Uniculturalism in Britain is unachievable – even if it was desirable, which for me it isn't. I relish the diversity of our society and don’t want my social and cultural norms to dominate and don't believe that they are preferable to any other norms either. But I would argue that we need greater tolerance of differences and a broader understanding of the world outside our own cultural ghettos. That world is as much about class, region, generation and lifestyle as it is about race or religion. That we should foster mobility in all these areas is fine – if a British Asian chooses to live a lifestyle that is similar to mine why not – but if he doesn't that’s surely fine as well. Acceptance of these freedoms means that we must accept and manage multiculturalism rather than spouting borderline racist remarks about the desirability of having a single “Uniculture”. Or condemning communities that live separate, but peace-abiding, lives where the only “problem” is that these lives are not like our lives.
Talking about a referendum now is the wrong thing, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons, says the European Movement
This is no time to toy with leaving the European Union. Instead we should remain intimately involved with our EU partners and contribute constructively in developing policies that will allow the British and European economy to regain its competitiveness and create growth and jobs. As the global economy is dealing with existential issues the EU is the right platform for European nations to come together and pursue their common interests. Talking about leaving the EU sends the wrong signal to investors and Britain’s global partners and weakens Britain’s ability to influence the future direction the EU will take.
Petros Fassoulas, Chairman of the European Movement, says “The EU is the world biggest market, a global player able to negotiate on behalf of its members trade deals with rising powers that contribute billions to EU GDP”.
According to the FCO the UK has already benefited from EU Free Trade Agreements. The recently signed South Korea Free Trade Agreement alone is expected to save European exporters £1.35 billion annually in tariff reductions. It is expected to benefit the UK economy by about £500 million per annum. The EU is also negotiating Free Trade Agreements with India, Canada and Singapore. Completing all the bilateral trade deals now on the table could add £75 billion to Europe’s GDP.
All alternative membership or association arrangements pale by comparison to full EU membership. The Norwegian, Swiss or European Free Trade Area model do not suit Britain, whose place is in the centre of the EU, forming the EU rules and institutional structures that affect its economic well-being.
“Instead of playing politics with something as important as the UK’s membership of the EU, politicians from all political parties should be engaging British people in an on-going discussion about the benefits of being part of the EU and how to make the most of Britain’s membership of it," Petros Fassoulas added.
The European Movement calls for a constant and better informed debate during local, national and European elections and invites all political parties and organisations to engage in an honest and fair discussion on what it means to be a member of the EU in the 21st century globalised world.
- Ends -
For further details please contact Lena Donner in the European Movement press team at email@example.com or 07920 840003.