Gaza - can the cycle of violence be broken ?
The Commonwealth stretches back to 1948 - the year Britain finally gave up that Jewel in the Imperial Crown - India. I doubt that there was ever much point to the Commonwealth even then. It was a device to soften the blow of the loss of Empire and in part to reduce the guilt that Britain rightly felt for its Imperial past. If, the logic perhaps went, once colonies can voluntarily gather together in a "Commonwealth of Nations" then the British Empire can morph into this new construct so proving that the Empire had a valuable unifying value even across disparate nations. But the only thing that held the Empire's countries together was sovereignty - the British Monarch was the titular head of state of all of them. Take that away, and the logic breaks down. True a few Commonwealth countries still have The Queen as head of state - a preposterous anachronism that will surely go with her passing. But that aside there is nothing holding the Commonwealth nations together except pomp and waffle.
The remarkable thing about the Eurozone is how little dissent there is now about the process of stabilisation of the single currency. Roll back a couple of years and the doom merchants were in full flight. Greece would have to leave. Portugal would surely follow. The Euro was dead. And so on. In fact progress has been steady under the skilled management of the EU and, especially, Angela Merkel. The Euro, far from being dead, is attracting new nations to it. The process of greater macroeconomic coordination of Eurozone countries (always a likely requirement) is moving forward without too much bleating about lost sovereignty. Meanwhile Britain stands aloof from all this, failing to use its currency independence to boost the balance of trade (the reverse in fact as we let the pound strengthen so making our exports more expensive).
The calls for the "Re-Nationalisation" of the railways are wrong. Wrong because the word "Nationalisation" is loaded and linked with bad memories of the old inefficient "Nationalised Industries". Wrong also because it suggests that it is something that is an ideologically good idea - shades of the Labour Party's now deleted Clause IV of its constitution: "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". We need a new language.
We live in a mixed Economy within which decisions are, or should be, taken rationally not ideologically. It is, as I have written before, a big "Public/Private partnership" with as its goal the outcome of maximising utility for all. In the main the Public sector should not be involved in manufacturing, commerce, trade etc - certainly in those sectors and businesses where competition is real. The Government should not own banks or financial services institutions though of course it should regulate them (better!). Transport is, however, another matter as is part of the Energy supply sector.
Any economy has to have a reliable transport and energy infrastructure and it is the duty of Government to provide it. In the United Kingdom Government builds and (mostly) maintains the road network. The same with Rail via "Network Rail" which had to be created after the disastrous private sector "Railtrack" failed so abysmally. The Airports may be privately run - but they are public assets, as are the ports.
The energy sector also has public assets in the electricity and gas networks (pipelines and transmission cable systems). Now there is nothing wrong with private sector companies using public assets if it is in the public interest. So a busy transport activity like buses on (say) the London/Oxford route has two operators who compete on services and price. The passenger is the beneficiary and there would be no credible case for taking these operators into public ownership and combining them. The railways, however, are different. As, in my view, is Gas and Electricity distribution to domestic users.
The rail network is publicly owned, but the train companies that use it are privately owned and operate franchises. In effect they are private sector monopolies. Unlike the London to Oxford buses there is little or no competition. You want to go to London from Manchester - Virgin Trains is your only serious choice. And in the busy and highly profitable London commuter zone there is also only one operator on any one route. No consumer choice at all.
The State is involved in the railways not only as owner of the track network but also the stations - and as the provider of subsidies as high as £4billion per annum to operators in order to keep open "uneconomic" but judged useful routes. Meanwhile the private sector monopolies, like Virgin, pay shareholder dividends and of course make profits. These would be absent without subsidy! The myriad of operators have different names, different fare structures, different booking systems and there is no consistency of offer between them. Virgin from London to Manchester is different from East Coast London to Leeds. But that is not competition - if you want to go to Manchester it's irrelevant if there is a "better" service to Leeds (or vice versa!)
The case for the railways system being truly publicly accountable is overwhelming. Consistency of offer, integrated branding, cooperative route planning and above all a pricing system for tickets that makes sense. The income generated by this operation would not go to shareholders but be reinvested in the network and services. In this model whilst the track, stations and trains would be publicly owned it would not be a recreation of "British Rail". There would be plenty of room for public/private partnerships providing they could be shown to be in the public interest. If you start with that goal of "maximising utility" then you seek the most pragmatic way to achieve it. Not all the workers in this system would need to be employed by the public sector and there would be plenty of room for "contracting out". But at the macro level all the confusion that exists at the moment would be swept away and we would have, once again, a publicly accountable and substantially publicly owned railway system.
The Energy sector is different. Here the issue is not that there is no competition but that it is artificial. The infrastructure that delivers Gas or Electricity to your home is, like the railway tracks and the stations, publicly owned. The physical gas or electricity that is input into these systems is a commodity and like all commodities there is a broadly comparable common price. No Gas or Electricity supplier has any strategic cost advantage over another. They pay the same supply costs and the same infrastructure use costs. So the price competition between them is only tactical. British Gas may offer you a price deal to encourage you to switch from, say, Eon but over time the price you pay will be the same. There is no real competition. Consumer prices would be lower if there was a single Gas or Electricity supplier to all domestic homes. There would be no duplication of facilities, no marketing costs and no dividends to pay. Again there would be some scope for public/private partnerships but the overriding test of everything would be consumer interest not profit.
If we eliminate ideology and start with the rail passenger or the domestic energy consumer and measure what is in their interests then the case for a properly accountable railway and energy system is overwhelming. Yes politicians would set the standards and decide priorities - but isn't that what we elect them for anyway?
The whole idea that you can talk about spending and taxation separately is deeply flawed. Indeed the idea that you can decouple the public accounts from the economy as a whole makes little sense. The start point of everything has to be citizen welfare in its broadest sense. It has to be bottom up. What are the needs of the people and how best should the Economy satisfy them?
If we start from a “Grand Ideology” then we miss the point completely. This is equally true whether it is Free Market Conservatives or Public Ownership Socialists who are making the noise! The economy as a whole is a huge Public/Private partnership. There are some things which fall unequivocally on the Private side of the divide and some which can only be done by the State. In between is a huge raft of consumer needs where Government has to make judgment calls about how best to manage.
Public expenditure falls broadly into three categories.
(1) Necessary, but efficient, expenditure which only the State can make.
(2) Discretionary expenditure which the State chooses to make, but doesn’t have to.
(3) Necessary expenditure which is inefficient and where either economies need to be made or which could be better carried out by the private sector.
The easy hits are in the second category. So we get cuts to Arts Funding which is likely to destroy some regional theatres and make the future of many arts institutions in peril. This is crass and deeply to be regretted. A cut to the International Development Budget would be in the same category. To its credit the Government has not done this despite the strident voices from some on the Right urging it to do so.
It is in the third category that most of the action is! If some aspects of the Health Service would be more efficient and cost effective if contracted out to private enterprise then only the Socialist ideologue would object. But if the motivation is some “private sector first” Conservative ideology then it is a very bad idea indeed – not least if the private sector beneficiaries are Conservative Party donor companies! The subsidies paid by Government to keep some rail services afloat and the utter confusion across the “network” of operators, fares and service standards are scandalous. This was a privatisation that was botched and had made us a laughing stock. Nobody wants British Rail back – but a publicly accountable Rail network that is consumer not profit driven seems a necessity to me. It’s not a call for renationalisation exactly, but it is a call for a publicly accountable revolution!
So let’s get away from arguing about expenditure and cuts as if they were separate things – they are of course two sides of the same coin. And let’s start making decisions based not on ideology or political expediency but only on a clear understanding of consumer need. Start there and you might get somewhere.
"My best friend from school's mother taught in local schools for 30 years and has just retired. She lived in a nice cul-de-sac in Blackburn. She is now the only person in that cul-de-sac who celebrates Christmas. She has been a Liberal Democrat voter for most of her life but has now changed completely. This is not cultural improvement. She no longer feels part of her own community. The other fact is that we are not in a a financial position as an economy to be able to allow non skilled or low skilled labour into the U K. We cannot afford the benefit system we have currently never mind letting new people in who can access NHS/Welfare etc. Maybe what is needed is a five year gap between moving here before being eligible for welfare...."
"We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre."I suspect that the retired teacher in Blackburn and the "left behind" group identified in "Revolt on the Right" would say that Enoch was right. And I have little doubt that Nigel Farage would as well - although whether he would admit it directly is another matter! Farage rails against "immigration" because this is a coded way of railing against "multiculturalism". Immigration, in theory, is something that Britain can do something about - multiculturalism is a fait accompli. Enoch Powell predicted this:
"For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they [the British people] found themselves made strangers in their own country. They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition..."
"I would never say that Powell was racist in any way at all. Had we listened to him, we would have much better race relations now than we have got,"
"The very use of the word ‘Europe’ in expressions like ‘European unity’, ‘going into Europe’, ‘Europe’s role in the world’ is a solecism which grates upon the ear..."
Between them Labour, the Conservatives, the LibDems and the Greens secured 64% of the UK-wide vote in the European elections. In other words the number of voters opposed to the UKIP message of prejudice and xenophobia far exceeded the 27.5% who bought it.
That UKIP topped the poll is scandalous and a condemnation of the failure of the major or respectable parties to present a universally attractive appeal. There are bigots out there for whom Mr Farage is some sort of saviour – and there are people for whom a fact-based pitch will fail. But UKIP is wrong on everything and can be shown to be so. Britain is far better as an active member of the European Union than we would be outside it. FACT. Immigration has been good for Britain both when measured empirically and when looked at from a social perspective. FACT. The main political parties are not led by self-interested, corrupt liars but by decent people who while they of course have personal ambition are mainly driven by honourable motives. FACT.
So what should the decent men and women of politics do to combat the UKIP threat? Well most importantly they should not try and adopt any of UKIP’s positions on anything. This is for two reasons. First UKIP is wrong. Secondly for one of the established Parties to lean in the UKIP direction would be counter-productive. It wouldn't gain any support back and it would to an extent legitimise UKIP’s position. Can you imagine Farage saying “Even David Cameron is now saying UKIP was right on….” !
So the right thing to do is to refute and challenge all of UKIP’s lies relentlessly. Marshall the facts and communicate well. Don't bash UKIP voters but UKIP’s leaders. Show them for the narrow, prejudiced, ignorant bigots they are. Not by insulting them personally but by revealing the extent of their lies. But that is not enough – grass roots action is necessary as well. The main parties must in their different ways convince their natural supporters that, as Tony Blair has put it:
Britain's future lies in being "outward looking and open-minded", not "closed-minded, anti-EU and anti-immigrant".
"Attitudes that are closed-minded, anti-immigrant, anti-EU, 'stop the world I want to get off', those attitudes don't result in economic prosperity or power and influence in the world.
"There is a perfectly good, strong argument to be made - you have to go out and make it."
But that argument has to be made not (just) in the cerebral pages of “The Guardian” or “The Times” but by engaging directly with all of the people. It is not as big a task as it might seem. Lets say that around a quarter of the electorate is attracted by UKIP. Well you only need to recover half of those to reduce UKIPs influence and marginalise them as the extremists they are. 25% is approaching mainstream – 12% or less is on the fringe. We must drive UKIP back to the fringes from which they emerged. And we will only do this if we engage, speak in language that people understand and don't imply that we think UKIP voters are fools.